The commercial ice plant arrived ready to assemble in Chu Lai, Vietnam, from Japan in the summer of 1968 with virtually no instructions, but that had never stopped U.S. Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 8 before. The plant would churn out massive blocks of ice about 1 foot thick, 1½ feet to 2 feet wide, and about 6 feet long, to be used in hospitals and mess halls.
A plan to inaugurate the plant quickly developed, and the team called on the skills of Petty Officer 2nd Class Eldon “Mac” McWilliams, a wisecracking New Englander with one tour of duty already under his belt. A crew chief on an adjoining project, McWilliams assisted in the time-honored Seabee tradition of “moonlight procurement” to obtain the necessary supplies and materials to produce the first block. It was, to say the least, ingenious.
“We poured in all the packs of Kool-Aid we could find,” McWilliams says, “stuck a 2x4 in it, and made the biggest Popsicle you've ever seen.”
Then, true to their mission of providing military support, they made a dozen more and delivered them to elated Marines in the field, many of whom had not eaten anything except unheated, tasteless C-rations for some time.
“That was fun,” says McWilliams, now a project estimator for Harvey Industries, a Massachusetts-based window and door manufacturer. “The rest of your life is almost blasé.”
Maybe McWilliams thinks so, but the students he taught carpentry, cabinetmaking, and architectural drafting at a vocational school for 25 years might disagree. So might the inmates to whom he taught furniture-making in the state prison system. Or the soldiers he taught as an Army Reservist.
“I definitely found the teaching of future contractors, and the passing on of my military knowledge to future military leaders, personally rewarding,” McWilliams says. “Had it not been for the Seabees, who extended my basic vocational school training in carpentry into many general areas, and the leadership skills taught in the service, my life would have turned out much differently.”
It's a theme often expressed by veterans of the Navy's Construction Battalions, nicknamed Seabees for the initials “C.B.” Many were barely out of high school when they were handed budgets of millions of dollars and the responsibility for managing large crews. As it did for McWilliams, the experience often set a course for their life's work.
The Seabees were created by the Navy within weeks of the bombing of Pearl Harbor because there was a need to do construction in war zones. Civilian contractors who had been building bases in the Pacific were “fair game to the Japanese,” says Bill Hilderbrand, a retired Navy captain in the Civil Engineering Corps, the officers corps of the Seabees, and president of the Civil Engineering Corps/Seabee Historical Foundation. “They weren't armed or equipped, so [the Navy] pulled them all back.” But the base-building activity couldn't be abandoned, so the Navy recruited tradesmen from the construction fields in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and even into their 60s. About half of a battalion, a force of 1,000 to 1,200 men, would be these older, experienced builders, and half would be young men in their late teens and early 20s. In addition to learning construction, they were trained in combat.
By the end of World War II, 325,000 men had enlisted in the Seabees, which still operates under the motto “We Build, We Fight.” Today, roughly 10,000 sailors are serving as Seabees on active duty around the world, with another 7,000 to 8,000 serving in the Naval Reserves. When they're not building things such as bridges or Antarctic research facilities, they engage in humanitarian efforts including the construction of a Kurdish refugee center and helping rebuild after the deadly tsunami in Asia. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Seabees have been working to reopen sewage and water treatment plants near Gulfport, Miss. They've also been renovating area schools and helping residents remove debris and clean up their property. Several veteran Seabees—and one still on active duty—who made careers in construction shared their stories with Builder.
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