Navy Seabee Foundation

Like Father (And Grandfather) Like Son

Building on a Proud Seabee Tradition

First came Charlie, then came Bill, followed by Nathan. All three men bear the same last name, Gilbert. All three men proudly served in the U.S. Navy Seabees.

Nathan Gilbert, son of Bill and grandson of Charlie, remembers sitting around the dinner table as a child listening to his father and grandfather reminisce about their memorable time in the Seabees. Grandpa Charlie, a Vietnam veteran, would talk about how much hard work it took to maintain the runways, but the two-beer ration and camaraderie he experienced with his fellow Bees made the hard work well worth it. He served two tours in Vietnam and also served in Italy and Guam with NMCB 11 and NMCB 40. After two decades with the Seabees, he retired in 1974 as a BUC.

Nathan’s father, Bill, followed in Charlie’s footsteps and joined the Seabees in 1977, serving with NMCB 133 on Diego Garcia and in Puerto Rico. Although the times and locations varied, Bill and Charlie’s stories were much the same. They both have fond memories of the life-long relationships that were established while framing buildings, placing concrete, maintaining airfields, playing cards at night or stealing the steps off the office headquarters at night (but that’s a story for another time)!

Nathan knew, that like his father, he wanted to pursue carpentry as a trade, but while sitting in class one day at the local community college, he realized that every year that he wasn’t joining the Seabees, was another year he was missing the opportunities his father and grandfather had experienced – opportunities to meet new people, travel the world and, of course, serve his country. When Nathan approached his father to tell him he wanted to enlist as a Seabee, he recommended that Nathan do his homework on all of the Navy rates. Since he was already a carpenter, it made sense that he should enlist in the Seabees.

Bill and Grandpa Charlie went down to the recruiter’s office with Nathan to see firsthand the proverbial passing of the baton. To their surprise, they were told that no builder’s rates were currently available. Grandpa Charlie took matters into his own hands and with a compelling speech about the Gilbert Seabee legacy, the placement recruiter found a spot for Nathan in the Seabees. Eight months later, Nathan was enrolled in boot camp in the Great Lakes followed by Builder A School in Gulfport.

During his five years with the Seabees, Nathan saw places in the world he didn’t even know existed. Framing large customizable buildings at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan and supporting the joint task force in Djibouti with NMCB 74 were experiences he never could have imagined.

But it was his time spent in a little country off the coast of Australia that he credits as his favorite deployment. While on the 5,400-square mile island of Timor-Leste, Nathan and members of NMCB 74 provided humanitarian aid, built a library for a local village, partnered with US AID to assist with construction projects at local hospitals and trained locals on equipment operating and general building skills. However, it was the water project that Nathan is most proud of. Working closely with the locals, his battalion built a new water basin that collected water from a mountainside stream and funneled it to the town below. Pulling sand and aggregate from the mountain, setting the forms and attaching a pipe to the newly constructed basin all completed the project, which will provide fresh water to an entire village for generations to come. “This was my favorite deployment,” Gilbert recalls, “because of the pride and accomplishment.”

Nathan in Timor-Leste with NMCB 74 building a water catchment system with the locals.

In 2014, Nathan hung up his Seabee boots to go back to work with his father on large custom homes on Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. While perusing Facebook one day, Nathan stumbled upon an opportunity to be an apprentice on PBS’s iconic home renovation show, This Old House. “I thought that working with Norm, Tommy, Kevin, Rich and Roger would be an awesome opportunity,” Gilbert said, so he completed the application and soon after, while sitting in a Wendy’s parking lot, received the call that he was selected as one of a handful of apprentices to air on the show. The Executive Producer credits Gilbert’s time in the Seabees as one of the unique reasons he was selected.

The experience working on the This Old House set was important to Gilbert because of the emphasis on the next generation. “There is a huge lack of skilled tradesmen right now, and it’s critical that the next generation embrace the trades – plumbing, carpentry, electrical,” Gilbert said. “Carpentry is so diverse.”

During his ten weeks on the set, Gilbert, along with This Old Housesmaster carpenters and two other apprentices, assisted with plumbing, framing, leveling the floor and finish work. He also helped to rebuild the front porch of the century-old home, supporting the roof for demolition and then reframing it with new pressure treated lumber, and finishing it off with straight grain fir boards. They also replaced the existing beadboard ceiling with new fir beadboard and bed moulding. Nathan felt prepared for the variety of work he did at the house because being a Seabee made him a well-rounded tradesman. “On the job site with the Seabees, you have to get the job done. You help the equipment operators dig holes, run wire with the electricians and install PVC with the plumbers. When they’re done, they turn around and help you frame walls or lay a concrete slab.”

On the set of This Old House with Master Carpenter, Norm Abram, and the Generation NEXT apprentices.

It’s that kind of collaboration that the Seabees call ‘Can Do,’ and Nathan would not have learned so many valuable skills – like how to mix concrete, pitch it, and reinforce it – without his Seabee experience. He also would not have had the meaningful opportunity of interacting with locals and showing them how to use tools appropriately. “With that experience in Timor-Leste came a sense of pride and accomplishment I had not yet experienced in my life,” Gilbert recalls. “Because of the Seabees, I visited places I had never heard of and met people I will never forget. It gave me a real sense of perspective in life.”

In September 2017, Nathan decided to surprise his father, an avid Red Sox fan, with tickets to the Red Sox vs. Tampa Bay Rays game sponsored by the Seabee Historical. “To see so many Seabees in uniform walking through Fenway, being honored on the field and the Diamond Anniversary logo on the JumboTron will be a moment my father and I will always cherish.”

Seabee Night at Fenway Park on September 9, 2017

Nathan was married in December, and it was the many Seabees friends who traveled from all over the country to celebrate his special day that was the most meaningful. It is these life-long relationships, his Seabee family, that he’s most grateful for.

Gilbert recently started his own carpentry business, Nathan Gilbert Carpentry, serving residents of the East Bridgewater, Massachusetts area. To learn more about his appearance on This Old House, click here.