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Who Are Those Guys?

For almost 40 years, I was fortunate to serve in the United States Marine Corps, and along the way I met many remarkable people who did extraordinary things. Some of my most vivid memories involve the Seabees, and not one, not two, but three different times I was wowed as I watched them in action. Each encounter left me deeply impressed with what the Seabees do, and how they do it, and my respect for them endures to this day.

The first of these interactions happened some 50 years ago, when I was a young Second Lieutenant assigned to an artillery battery just outside Da Nang, in Vietnam. One day, we were given orders to move our artillery position a few miles, to get closer to other units and be able to give them support. As the junior officer in the battery, it was my job to pull the mission together, and get the convoy lined up and ready to go. Just as we were ready to move out, a vehicle pulled up. Inside was a young Seabee Lieutenant, who came up and said, “Hey, I understand you guys are moving. Well, I’ve got some equipment here, and you guys probably need some help.” I talked to my battery commander, who thought that sounded like a great idea, so off we went. While it was a relatively short move, it had its perils, including mines and booby traps. The Seabees, engineers and craftsmen by trade, helped us every inch of the way. When we arrived at our new battery position, we were prepared to dig ourselves in and set ourselves up. But the Seabees weren’t done helping us out. They had bulldozers and other equipment, and worked to get our gun positions and powder pits and bunkers and barbed wire all in place. Their assistance made everything faster and easier. But they still weren’t done, coming back the next day to see if there was anything else we needed. When we were done, off they went. Looking back, it seemed like something out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, riding off into the sunset, leaving us asking, “Who are those guys?”

Seabees take a break while finishing work on a bridge near Da Nang, 1967 (Photo Credit: National Archives)

Those guys, the Seabees, were back on the scene again about five years later, in the second of my memorable encounters. This time, it was the early 1970s, and I was a Captain who’d been assigned to Okinawa for a year. I said goodbye to my new wife, and joined my artillery regiment. We were at an old base called Camp Hauge, one of the last of the World War II bases that Marines still used. It had not been rebuilt, and its Quonset huts were very basic compared to other bases on the island. During our stay, as happens sometimes in that part of the world, a typhoon blew through. It hit our base hard. Power lines were down. Trees were down and blocking roads. Our water system was knocked out. Nobody was hurt, but things were a real mess. Right down the road from us was a Seabee camp, and knowing that our base was older, the Seabees showed up the next morning. They had one question for our regimental commander. “You guys need some help?” The next thing we knew, there were Seabees fanned out across our base, helping us restore power, clear trees, and get everything functioning again. They stayed until all of the basic utilities were operational. Then, off they went. For the second time in my life, I just thought wow, these guys just show up and get the job done. I’m sure after helping us they went on to another hard-hit base to do the same thing. That’s what Seabees do.

The main gate at Camp Hauge, Okinawa, which was named for Cpl. Louis J. Hauge, Jr., a Marine who won the Medal of Honor for his actions during the battle for Okinawa. (Photo Credit: “Blackie” the photographer, Keystone Studios)

Fast forward more than 20 years, to the mid 1990s, and I was a Brigadier General, assigned to two jobs. I was the Deputy Commander of Striking Forces South, Naples, Italy and also dual-hatted as the Chief of Staff of a Joint Task Force the United States had set up. The Task Force was called “Provide Promise,” and the essential mission was to offer U.S. support to the United Nations in its efforts in Bosnia-Herzegovnia, where a terrible civil war was going on. Bosnian Serbs besieged the city of Sarajevo, and a couple of hundred thousand people were basically trapped there. The U.N. had a body in Sarajevo trying to keep the factions away from each other, and the Joint Task Force I was leading had about five different missions going on. One of those involved a Naval hospital in Zagreb, and another was what we called the “air bridge.”  C-130s and C-160s were constantly flying in with food and medical supplies and building materials destined for Sarajevo. It was like the Berlin airlift, just years later. It was wintertime, and the weather in the Balkans was snowy, cold and brutal. A French force was assigned to keep the air field in Sarajevo open, allowing the aircraft to come in, drop their pallets of supplies as their engines kept running, then take off as another plane came in. Every forklift and other piece of heavy equipment the French were using were crucial for moving pallets of supplies off the tarmac and onto trucks. The trouble was the equipment broke down — a lot. Operations were really getting backlogged at the Sarajevo airport, and it went from bad to worse as they ran out of room to offload more supplies on the tarmac.

That’s when I got a call from a liaison officer in Sarajevo, explaining the trouble with the broken airlift equipment and the weather, and saying the flow of badly-needed supplies was slowing down and might need to stop altogether. I told my staff in Naples about the situation in Sarajevo, and one of them — a Seabee officer — said, “You know, General, we’ve got some Seabees in Zagreb doing some work at the Naval hospital. There’s nothing that says we can’t move those guys to Sarajevo.” He was absolutely right, and that’s just what we did. So, with the help of the U.N., we got a plane and spare parts, and moved those Seabees from Zagreb to Sarajevo. Armed with their toolkits and ‘Can Do’ attitude, they arrived and immediately started fixing the broken equipment. They helped the French get all of the supplies offloaded and where they were going, then it was wheels up and back to Zagreb — mission accomplished!

Members of NMCB 133 prepare to deploy to Bosnia.
(Photo Credit: Public Domain)

These three vignettes shine a light on who the Seabees are and what they do. These craftsmen are unique, and they bring their skills to building and repairing and keeping things going in the combat zone. It’s not glamorous, and they’re not flashy, but if you’re somewhere without water or power or shelter, the Seabees suddenly become the most important thing in your life.

The Seabees are the most unselfish group of men and women I’ve ever been around. They just roll up their sleeves and get the job done. Later in my military career, as a Major General, I was in the position as Director of Expeditionary Warfare to help take care of the Seabees. I did the best I could for them, because they had taken care of me. That’s still true today, and I know the rich history and tradition of the Seabees deserves to be preserved and shared.


Lt. Gen. Edward Hanlon, Jr., USMC (Ret) had a 39-year military career. After retiring from the Marine Corps in 2007, he became president of Raytheon International Inc. Europe, based in Brussels. He completed his employment with Raytheon in 2012 and returned to the United States. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Military Officers Association of America. He is also a member of the California Governor’s Military Advisory Council, and is on the board of advisors for the San Diego Military Advisory Council.

11 Comments
  1. My oldest grandson is with NMCB-133 deployed in Rota right now! I feel the same pride today as my grandparent felt when I did my 22 years, or my son rode Trident boats. Everybody knows and does their job: it’s a navy thing!

  2. 22 years later we can still ” can do ” and proud to do so. I had some of the worst duty in the service and would go back and do it all again. Commradery is the key to a job well done.

  3. You really never hear about them much. I am very proud my Dad was in the second wave of CBs to be sent out in WW2. He earned a bronze star in the south Pacific. He always said the CBs build the bridges the marines get the credit for crossing. As I go on in life I learn more and more this is probably true

  4. I was a Seabee in Vietnam in 1968 and again in 1969 in MCB 53. I have always been proud of the Can Do tradition of the Seabees and to this day associate with my battalion members once every 1.5 years in different places all over the US at a reunion. I also have lunch once a month with a bunch of retired seabees from MCB 15 reserve battalion that was decommissioned a few years ago in Des Moines Iowa. All seabees are like brothers even though you may not know them personally, you do know them by what they are.

  5. A large group of us (Seabees) had gathered at a statue by the Wall in DC one Memorial Day trying to get a picture with everybody in it. We finally stopped somebody with Marine emblem on his jacket and asked if he would take the picture. Of course I will he said we Marines love our Seabees.

  6. Thank you for the kind words General. We Bees have always supported the USMC. Need a hot shower or a cold beer we got it. We can build or fight, and sometimes do both. That’s why we respect the Marines so much. Nobody does the fighting part better than the you guys and gals. Most of my military training was done by the Marines at Camp Pendleton. We would march through Camp Horno calling Jarhead Jarhead don’t be blue you could have been a SeaBee too as went to the range. Very endearing.
    Have it good.
    Curt Bensen BUH-2 MCB-5 1966-68 Capt. OFD ret.

  7. When America pulls together things get done.I served thirty two years as an active duty Seabee and I am very proud of those who serve with me.After three tours to Vietnam,I can say I am proud to say with out being trained by the Marine Corp to defend are positions myself and many Seabees would not be alive today.Lz stud.phu bia ,Rock pile,.Cam lo,Razor back been there and many other places Northern I Corp route nine.At every step along my wonderful career there was a Marine I can remember.Thank god.

  8. My heartfelt respect and admiration goes to all who served, especially those whose tours with death-risking assignments. My four-year stint in the early fifties was void of such risks; I simply went where I was told and did what was assigned.

    Please, on this Memorial day, accept my sincere thanks and prayers for your service. Count me in for prayers supporting those who gave it all.

    John

  9. Quite often or most of the time the Seabees
    do not receive the credit that they are do!
    They are recognized as being Marines or Arne
    because of the utilities / greens that they wear.
    Basically, those who have had work done for
    them by Seabees are the ones that recognize
    and support the Seabees. It’s a shame that
    they rarely receive the credit they are due.

  10. I remember today three mcb128 who gave all…..two from Florida.

  11. jerry slusher 1955_1958 great lakes _pt. hueneme cla na cm school 13 weeks 89 weekjs parts school tought by civil service then A C B 2for 2 1/2 yrs once a Seabee always a Seabee planning to return to a c b 2 before its to late love all the bees anb famnilysw hooi-rah

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