Original U.S. WWII SEABEES Hand Painted Camp Peary and Camp Parks Hawaii Sign

Item Description

Original Item: One-of-a-kind. This is a fantastic eye appealing hand painted wood sign featuring the SEABEES insignia along with Camp Peary and Camp Parks Hawaii. It measures 25" x 16" and based on the nail pattern of holes around the exterior was once the lid to a wood shipping crate.

Two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the little-known head of the Navy Bureau of Yards and Docks made an urgent personnel request that had a decisive impact on the outcome of World War II.

Knowing the conflict would be won or lost by the control of dozens of remote Pacific islands — and by amphibious invasions both there and in the Atlantic on a scale never seen before — Rear Adm. Ben Moreell needed a new kind of sailor capable of carrying out risky expeditionary landings and building what became more than 400 advance bases.

He also had to be able fight back under enemy fire.

Civilian contractors couldn’t do the job and — to make things worse — the 100-odd builders laboring at Wake Island when the Japanese invaded in December 1941 were left so unprotected by the conventions of war that most were executed by their captors.

Moreell’s answer was the Naval Construction Battalion, whose “We Build, We Fight” and “Can Do!” mottoes made the men first trained in Hampton Roads an indispensable arm in the invasions of Sicily, Italy and France and the island-hopping battle of the Pacific.

Known early on by the nickname of Seabees, the pioneering classes came from Camps Allen and Bradford in Norfolk, which they left in January 1942 to build a critical fueling station in Bora Bora — followed in October by the battalions who landed at North Africa with Operation Torch, then built a huge naval air station as well as staging and training bases for the Allied showdown with the Afrika Korps.

But so huge was the need for this new kind of warrior that in November 1942 training moved to a giant new center at Camp Peary outside Williamsburg, where more than 100,000 Seabees were born.

“The Seabees went from zero to 325,000 — and that’s because nobody else had the skill sets they had,” says Lara Godbille, head of the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum in Port Hueneme, Calif., which was the largest West Coast construction training center during the war.

    The Seabees went from zero to 325,000 - and that's because nobody else had the skill sets they had.
    —  Lara Godbille, head of the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum (Port Hueneme, Calif.)

“They were not only expected to build things no one else could build but also defend what they built. A lot of times they were building before anyone else arrived.”
Surging demand

Just how much Moreell’s Seabees stood out from the regular Navy can be seen in pictures of the first recruit classes at Camp Allen.

“You look at the typical boot-camp training photo and they’re all young — and they have nothing on their sleeves. But not the Seabees,” says Clay Farrington of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

“A lot of them are older. They’re experienced at the jobs they’re going to do — and a lot of them come into the Navy as chiefs.”

Averaging 37 years of age at the start of the war, these veterans of building the Boulder Dam, the national highways and the skyscrapers and subways of New York converged on Hampton Roads because of its strategic location.

Though the trail-blazing first class left for Bora Bora in the Pacific in January 1942 — and by far the largest number of Seabees were deployed against Japan — a substantial portion of those who trained here built and fought on the Atlantic rim.

“Early on, they were very concerned about protecting the Panama Canal,” Godbille says, “and they needed bases in Newfoundland, Greenland and Iceland to protect the convoys in the North Atlantic.”

The initial training was “a little slapdash,” too, she adds, “because the idea of the Seabees was so new.”

But as the war revved up and began taking shape, Camps Allen and Bradford were so inundated by recruits that the Navy needed a much bigger base.

“That’s why Camp Peary was so important,” Godbille says.

“The demand for Seabees was so great that they outgrew these early camps — and when Camp Peary opens, they start getting standardized training.”

Located east of Williamsburg on the York River, the 11,000-acre tract of land was everything the Navy was looking for, says military historian John V. Quarstein, describing a formula first applied in Hampton Roads during the previous war.

“They wanted to be near the water. They wanted to be near the railroad. And they wanted it to be cheap,” he explains. “And that property fit the bill.”

Still, the acquisitions that began early that fall and continued for months after the base opened brought pain and sacrifice to the people who lived in and around the traditionally black communities of Magruder and Bigler’s Mill.

Well over 100 often reluctant landowners — most of them descendants of slaves freed by the Civil War — ended up leaving their farms, homes and churches to relocate in nearby Grove.

“It was very quick — and it was very controversial,” says Joseph P. Freitus, author of “Virginia in the War Years, 1938-1945: Military Bases, the U-Boat War and Daily Life.”

“They took a lot of land — and a lot of it wasn’t needed.”
Training regime

In the beginning, Camp Peary focused on training new recruits, preparing them for the Navy through classes in marksmanship and military discipline, writes Naval History and Heritage Command Historian Vincent Transano in a 1997 Seabee history.

Though the physical standards for men as old as 50 had been eased, the physical training had not, leaving many sailors with less than fond memories of the place they called “Swamp Peary” and “the land that God forgot.”

“Thirty days is all it takes,” wrote a member of the 103rd Naval Construction Battalion, which formed in October 1943.

“Thirty days of sweat like you’ve never sweated before. Thirty days of hip-hup an’ a reep. Thirty days of forward march, column right, column left an’ to the rear. We’ll make a Seabee of out of you, matey. We’ll take that fat off your belly.”

Early on the base began to add advanced training programs, including such specialties as boilers and plumbing, carpentry and forms, cranes and shovels, hut and tent erection, water evaporators and purifiers and some 25 other construction disciplines listed in a mid-1943 photo album archived in the records of the Fifth Naval District.

So proficient did such units as the 63rd NCB become that one sailor described an exercise at the base’s “Island X” proving ground in which 50 men cleared a camp area, erected a mess hall and galley and set up a water tank, showers and drinking water units in 3 ½ hours.

Other training sites included a mocked-up Liberty ship where battalions of stevedores — many of them African-American — honed their skills at loading and unloading cargo.

Another area taught invaluable lessons in the configuration and use of steel pontoons, the so-called “magic box” that Seabees employed to build the causeways, “whale bridges” and “Rhino ferries” that brought millions of men and uncounted tons of equipment ashore beginning with the invasion of Sicily and continuing through the Normandy landing and the crossing of the Rhine River.

In mid-May 1943, six officers and 18 enlisted men from Camp Peary reported for advanced training at Solomon’s Island in the Chesapeake Bay, then took part in the July and August 1943 invasion of Sicily as pioneering Naval Demolition Unit No. 1.

A month later, the camp opened a Demolition and Dynamiting School, with many sailors going on to the newly founded Naval Combat Demolition Unit school in Fort Pierce, Fla.

“The men were resourced from Camp Peary, sent to Fort Pierce and then to England for the invasion of Normandy,” says retired Navy Seal Tom Hawkins, author of two histories on naval special warfare units.

“Lt. Cdr. Kauffman would go up to Camp Peary and the Dynamite School, assemble them all in an auditorium and say, ‘I need volunteers for hazardous, prolonged and distant duty.’ They had 53 percent casualties at Normandy.”

Indispensable role
Following their dramatic success in the invasion of Sicily — where their pontoons enabled the Allies to make surprise landings on beaches previously considered impossible to attack — 10,000 Seabees swarmed ashore at Normandy to configure the floating causeways that carried the bulk of the infantry and most of the tanks and other heavy vehicles from the assault transports to the beaches.

They also built and operated the giant Rhino ferries that shuttled tens of thousands of men and hundreds of thousands of tons of supplies and equipment from the larger ships to the landing zone, transporting such a strong and steady stream that by July 4 — just 28 days after D-Day — they had helped deliver more than 1 million men and mountains of material needed for fighting.
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