Navy Seabee Foundation

‘Can Do’ Spirit Builds Pipeline to Success

‘Can Do’ Spirit Builds Pipeline to Success

by S. Miller Williams
Chairman, Willbros Group, Inc.
Seabee Diamond Anniversary Ambassador

“This album has been assembled to preserve the story and images of my service and the service of others during World War II as members of the 31st Naval Construction Battalion, the Seabees.”

That’s the first sentence of a four-page history I wrote about my father, John H. Williams, a few years ago. It recaps his service with the U.S. Navy Seabees, a transformative period of his life.

Newly retired, I took on the task of organizing boxes of family memorabilia that had been in storage for 30 years. They included six albums my mother assembled during the war years containing news clippings, medals, ration cards and other keepsakes. I consolidated everything into one album and wrote a summary to accompany it. I kept a copy for myself, gave one to each of my two brothers, and presented the original to my father as a gift for all he had done for us. Even though he seldom talked about the war, I know he enjoyed having this history of his service.

My father was a self-made man who excelled at everything he did: from serving in the Navy and leading a major corporation to being a husband and father. He was born in Havana, Cuba, where his father worked for a tobacco company. As a child he didn’t have it easy, losing his father to a brain tumor. His two uncles put him through Yale, where he earned a civil engineering degree. They brought him into the family pipeline construction business, the Williams Brothers Company. But then the war came.

He joined the Navy in 1942, volunteering for the CEC as an Ensign in the 31st Naval Construction Battalion. First stationed in Bermuda, they constructed barracks, roads, fuel tanks, water systems, warehouses, a seawall, and a dock. Through these efforts Bermuda became a staging port for the war effort.

The Navy needed my father’s civil engineering skills. Like a true Seabee he rose to the challenge. He learned to build and construct, and most importantly, to manage people—not through pulling rank, but by bringing everyone together with a common purpose. He became very good at figuring out people’s strengths and abilities and motivating them to do what they were best at.

Lieutenant John Williams
1942 – 1946

In January 1945 the 31st NCB traveled to Iwo Jima, facing fierce fighting. Securing this island would give the U.S. troops a steppingstone to Japan. The Seabees had their work cut out for them, securing beaches, unloading supplies, and repairing airfields. Another problem they faced was a lack of fresh water. My father had worked as a foreman on a job constructing a water pipeline from Key West to mainland Florida. So he knew how to move water. With his leadership and know-how, the battalion created an ingenious fresh water system known as the ‘Williams Waterworks.’ It was the Seabees’ ‘Can Do’ spirit in action, solving the toughest problems.

Lt. John Williams (standing, left) directing drilling
for the ‘Williams Waterworks’ on Iwo Jima.

In August 1945 the U.S. dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, followed days later by a second on Nagasaki, and the Japanese surrendered. A few months later my father traveled to Nagasaki. Seeing that devastation first-hand is a reason why he seldom talked about the war. The memories were too painful.

The war over, my father re-entered the family business with gusto, building it into a major operator of energy infrastructure. The unique skill set he’d honed in the Navy served him well. Having grown up in Cuba he was fluent in Spanish and understood the culture. This enabled him to grow the business in South America, where the company built pipelines crossing the Andes Mountains. He became CEO in 1949. The company is now known as the Williams Companies. He taught his three sons what he knew too. We went on to our own successful careers in engineering, energy, telecommunications and acquisitions. I’m now chairman of Willbros Group, the original family construction company.

Problems arise in business and in life, and I’d ask my dad where he got the strength and fortitude to handle them. He’d say, “It comes from my experiences in the military. Three of you are standing there. You look to the left, and to the right, and know one of you might be killed by the end of the day. That puts life into a different perspective.”

His Navy experience gave him a level of mental toughness you don’t see much. In 1951 he survived two airplane crashes in a single day on his way to South America to oversee a pipeline project. The first plane, a commercial airliner, clipped a telephone wire on takeoff. This crash made the cover of Life magazine. He gathered his things, walked away, and chartered a small plane to Dallas. Against unbelievable odds, that plane crashed too. Again he walked away, persuading a farmer to drive him to the Dallas airport, where he caught another flight to South America.

My father passed away in 2013. To honor his memory, I’m delighted to serve as a Diamond Anniversary Ambassador for the Seabees’ 75th Anniversary fundraising campaign, which will benefit the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum in Port Hueneme, California. The goal is to raise money for the museum’s expansion, adding interactive exhibits highlighting the Seabees’ ingenuity in building and problem-solving.

My father was not one for sentiment or reunions. But the memorabilia he saved through all these years shows his commitment to upholding and promoting the Seabees’ legacy. While he never got the opportunity to visit the Seabee Museum, I’m confident he would have been a strong supporter of its expansion. Being a Seabee was an important part of his life and certainly a key to his success.

Please consider contributing to this campaign. Promoting the Seabees’ legacy is a cause I strongly believe in. Your support of the museum will ensure that the Seabees receive the recognition they deserve as builders of character and builders of men.

Click here to make a contribution.

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  1. Seabees CAN DO.amen

  2. Hi! Would you mind if I share your blog with my facebook group? There’s a lot of folks that I think would really enjoy your content. Please let me know. Cheers

  3. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove people from that service? Cheers!