CAN DO!: The Navy's Fabulous FIGHTING SEABEES

By Hughes, Roger L. | Sea Classics, June 2010 | Go to article overview

CAN DO!: The Navy's Fabulous FIGHTING SEABEES


Hughes, Roger L., Sea Classics


Created as a unique fighting force, the men of the Navy's construction battalions share a long and proud history I Part One

The Seabees of the United States Navy were born in the dark days following Pearl Harbor when the task of building victory from defeat seemed almost insurmountable. The Seabees were created in answer to a crucial demand for builders who could fight.

Using seamen of the fleet to build shore-based facilities; however, was not a new idea. Ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans did it. In more recent times, from the earliest days of the United States Navy, sailors who were handy with tools occasionally did minor construction chores at land bases.

FIRST ADVANCED BASE

American seamen first were employed in large numbers for major shore construction during the War of 1812. Early in 1813, the USS Essex, under the Command of Capt. David Porter, rounded Cape Horn and became the first Navy ship to carry the American flag into the Pacific Ocean. The Essex began operating in Pacific waters and captured a British commerce raider, several British merchantmen, and several large British whaling ships. While sailing near the Galapagos Islands in October 1813, Capt. Porter learned that a British Naval squadron had entered the Pacific and was searching for him. Because he had been away from his home base for well over a year, Porter decided to prepare his small squadron for the expected battle. To do this, he needed a safe harbor in which to repair and re-equip the Essex and some of his prizes that had been converted into fighting ships. In the absence of secure facilities on South America's west coast, he decided to take his ships to the Marquesas Islands. After sailing through the Marquesas for a few days, he selected the shore of a bay on Nukuhiva Island as the best site for constructing the United States Navy's first advanced base.

Under Capt. Porter's direction, about 300 skilled artisans from his ships undertook the building of the base. Nearly 4000 friendly natives obtained the materials and worked side-by-side with the Navy builders. As a protection against unfriendly tribes, the men built a fort, which was duly christened Fort Madison with the ceremonious raising of the American flag. Other construction included a house for Porter, a house for the other officers, a cooper's shop, a sail loft, a bake shop, a guard house, a simple medical dispensary, a stores building, an open-shed shelter for the Marine sentries, a rudi-mentary dock, and ramps to haul the ships high onto the beach. While this construction was underway, some unfriendly natives occasionally attacked, and the Americans had to lay down their tools, take up their weapons, and defend what they were building.

Captain Porter's foster son, David Glasgow Farragut, a 12-yr-old midshipman assigned to the .Essex, was an interested observer and a participant in the construction of the base. When the Typee natives began to attack the base, young Farragut was ashore. Alarmed at the possible early demise of his foster son, Porter hustled him back aboard the Essex for safekeeping.

During lulls in the fighting and while construction was underway, Farragut was allowed to go ashore and participate in the operations. However, at the first signs of trouble with the unfriendly tribes, back to the Essex or the Sir Andrew Hammond he went. Even after he became the United States Navy's first admiral some 40yrs later, Farragut was still bemoaning his ill luck in not being allowed to engage in active battle at Nukuhiva.

Upon its completion, the Navy's first base was named "Madison"s Ville," and Nukuhiva Island was named "Madison Island," and the adjoining waters were named "Massachusetts Bay." Porter went so far as to claim the island as a United States possession. In the entire proceedings, he conveniently ignored Spanish and British claims going back respectively to the 16th and 18th centuries.

Even before construction of the base was completed, the Essex and Essex Junior were hauled up the improvised ramps to the top of the beach. …

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