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For the Navy’s Seabees, everything old is new again

Sailors assigned to Underwater Construction Team One prepare to offload two combat rubber raiding crafts into water Nov. 10, 2020, at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek.

CHELSEA PALMER/U.S. NAVY

By DAVE RESS | The Daily Press | Published: March 7, 2021

(Tribune News Service) — For a military history buff and Navy officer really into civil engineering, Cmdr. Tim Wallace says these are exciting days to be a Seabee — one of the team of sailors who build the things onshore that keep the Navy fleet in action.

For the past eight decades, since that frightening March after Pearl Harbor, the Navy’s Seabees — the name comes from their original designation as Construction Battalions — have been digging foundations, putting up buildings, and fixing wharves, piers and airfields.

Eight decades ago, they built those facilities in the Galapagos islands, at the Panama Canal, to Newfoundland and Iceland, for the planes that protected North Atlantic convoys, to the Pacific islands that Marines won as they went, step by fiercely-fought stop, to defeat Japan.

With the Navy’s new emphasis on what it calls distributed maritime operations, Wallace said the work Seabees have been doing for decades is assuming a new prominence.

“We’re doing what we’ve always done, enabling the fleet to do its job,” he said. “But I think that work’s even more important now.”

Distributed maritime operations means thinking about sailors and ships going beyond the Navy’s traditional blue-water operations. The theory, as some Navy strategists like to say, is “if it floats, it fights.”

For the Navy and Marines to go anywhere could mean work like the island-hopping that saw Seabees’ landing with Marines during the battle for Tarawa in 1943, when they put a wrecked airfield back in operation in just 15 hours.

Seabees are still doing things like that, if not under fire. In recent months, Seabees have built a road on the Pacific island of Tinian and a new airfield on California’s Catalina island.

Last month, the Seabees at Little Creek-based Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit 202 worked on a sand dune restoration project in Virginia Beach, following up on a communications exercise to test antenna ranges at the base.

“I think the project I remember the most was building a medical clinic on Trinidad,” said Capt. Susanne Wienrich, head of the Naval Construction Force and Expeditionary Logistics Requirements Branch.

“I got to see how the children were living as we built the clinic, and how they looked when we finished and the clinic was there for them,” she said.

Projects like that can show the flag in a way that seems less threatening than other military operations, she said. And sometimes, that less threatening posture means Seabees are the first into dangerous places, since they’re less likely to alarm potential adversaries.

But Seabees are warfighters, she said.

Little Creek Seabees now, like their counterparts across the country, are hitting the books and practicing skills for airfield and port facilities repair work, preparing for the Navy’s global large scale exercise this summer.

A key part of the summer exercise will be drilling and refining a key task — getting their equipment, from bulldozers to computers, onto and off of Navy ships in hostile spots in ways that don’t get in the way of what those ships have to do.

“I’m into military history, I’m passionate about engineering and I wanted to serve,” Wallace said. “What could be better than being a Seabee?”

dress@dailypress.com

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Seabees from Little Creek's Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit test antenna ranges during a communications exercise during the winter.
U.S. NAVY/TNS