Seabee helped provide B-29s with springboard to victory in Japan
By LOU MICHEL | The Buffalo News, N.Y. | Published: March 4, 2013
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Reared by a father who was deeply patriotic and served in a submarine during World War I, Schuyler L. Gilbert was informed by his dad shortly after high school graduation that “no son of mine is going to be drafted.”
That translated into a trip by father and son to the local Navy recruiting office in New Haven, Conn. But Charles Gilbert’s bulldog determination to see that his boy followed in his footsteps defending America would take three tries.
“My brother was already in the Navy as an aviation mechanic serving in Australia, and I couldn’t get in because I was colorblind. But I went back to the recruiter two more times,” Schuyler Gilbert says. “On the third time, I’d been standing in line for a while as others were reading the color chart. I was blind to green and brown. So I memorized it.
“When it was my turn, the recruiter switched the chart page and told me that he did it because he figured I had memorized the chart. But the page he switched to was blue, and I could see blue and passed the test.”
His father, waiting outside in the family car, laughed approvingly when his son reported the good luck that had come his way.
Just two weeks out of high school, he was off to Navy boot camp in the Finger Lakes, at Sampson Naval Training Center. Then it was on to the Pacific’s Mariana chain of islands, where he was assigned to Tinian, an island several miles from the better-known Saipan.
He worked with the 38th Naval Construction Battalion after complaining to his superiors that he was weary of serving as a gofer and pulling guard duty.
“I was 18 at the time and placed with construction workers twice my age and told that I would be taught to operate power shovels, bulldozers and rollers,” the 86-year-old Amherst resident recalls.
He had no idea that his labor would become part of a historic World War II construction effort.
“We moved 12 million cubic yards of coral that was just under island’s sugar cane fields. It was equivalent of material needed for three Boulder Dams,” Gilbert says. “We transported the coral to runways we were building for B-29 bombers.”
To provide an idea of just how big of an operation it was to construct four runways out of crushed coral, Gilbert offered these staggering statistics:
• A workforce of 15,000 Seabees.
• 570 dump trucks, 270 cargo trucks, 173 surface spreaders, 160 tractors and bulldozers, 80 power shovels, 60 roll-graders, 40 water wagons, 70 welding units and assorted cranes.
The Seabees worked round-the-clock and finished on time or, in some areas, ahead of schedule.
When the last shovelful of coral and construction material was in place, this is what they had accomplished:
• Four runways, each 1½ miles long, 500 feet wide, in addition to 265 “hard stands,” parking spaces for planes.
• 178 Quonset huts.
• 92 various other buildings.
“We called this our ‘Can-Do’ story,” Gilbert says of the approximately six-month undertaking. “I took special pride in knowing I helped, especially when I saw the B-29s start to land.”
As if that was not enough for the history books, Gilbert ended up having a direct hand in what would bring abount Japan’s rapid surrender in the summer of 1945.
“One night, an officer came to my tent and said, ‘Hey, Gilbert, you know how to operate a backhoe. I’ve got a job for you.’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and when we got over to the runway, he said, ‘Dig a hole,’ and I asked, ‘What’s it for?’ He said, ‘Never mind; just do it.’ There were Marines guarding us as I dug the hole.”
The teenage Seabee later found out that he was digging a pit in which 10,213-pound “Fat Man,” the world’s second atomic bomb, would be loaded into the belly of a B-29, Bockscar, that would drop its payload on Nagasaki.
“I was told that the bomb was so big it could not be loaded in the conventional way,” he says. “They had to drive the plane over the hole I’d dug and then jack it up into place.”
Three days before Bockscar’s mission to Nagasaki, the other B-29, Enola Gay, had dropped 9,700-pound “Little Boy” on Hiroshima.
In the weeks before the atomic bombings, Gilbert says, he and others had noticed two planes continually taking off and landing on the island.
“I later found out that they were practicing,” he says. “The planes were each loaded with sandbags similar to the weight of the bombs.”
After the war, he was transferred to Japan for the occupation and visited Nagasaki, where he beheld an amazing sight amid Fat Man’s devastation.
“There wasn’t anything you couldn’t pick up in your hand, but just out of the range of the bomb, I saw a church, and the stained-glass windows were still in it, and the cross was on the steeple,” Gilbert recalls.
“A guy said to me to remember that. He said, ‘It’s God saying you can build anything you want that is destructive, but I’m still running the show.’?”
Those words, Gilbert says, he never forgot.