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Seabees As Historians: Nation’s Untold Story

Seabees As Historians: Nation’s Untold Story

By David Iwata
Partner, LD Two Group

Imagine losing a family member in a brutal war and then being unable to recover the body for burial. One of the endless sad results of combat, it happened on a large scale at Iwo Jima during World War II. As Americans, we find this notion unacceptable and risk lives and expend untold resources recovering those who die in combat; no matter how long it takes. It is a part of the U.S. military ethos and a promise our government has made to bring them home.

As different as we may appear from our former enemy of Japan, we are more alike than many may know. We share the same desire for peace and prosperity, and Japan has become one of the closest allies in the world for the U.S.

On a more personal level, those who serve in uniform in Japan are held in the same high regard by their family and friends as they are here. They share the same concerns and expect the same basic rights and respect they have earned serving their country.

Some 22,000 Japanese soldiers perished at Iwo Jima in 1945—almost all who were stationed there. Today, the remains of 14,000 of these soldiers have never been accounted for. These war dead have become a political issue in Japan, with government leaders accusing one another of not doing enough to locate them. Politicians all the way up to the prime minister have pledged to do all they can to recover and repatriate the remains. But recovery has been slow, complicated by the maze of bunkers and tunnels from which these soldiers fought.

In 2012 the recovery received a major boost from an unexpected source: the U.S. Navy Seabees. They’re known for being builders and fighters, but what’s less well known is that they’re also historians. Stored away at the U. S. Navy Seabee Museum in Port Hueneme, CA, is a vast archive of historical files documenting our nation’s war and building efforts dating back to World War II. It’s a remarkable resource—a place to access information that answers questions, informs, and inspires.

I’m not a Seabee myself, but my close ties to them go back to 1983. I was working for Marriott at the time. We hosted the Commander, Reserve Naval Construction Force during their weekend drills at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Southern California. I made many friends in the Seabees, gained a deep respect for their proud history, and learned about the archive.

In February 2012 the Japanese government engaged a team of contractors to visit the Seabee Museum and view the archival materials. They hoped to gain information about what happened at Iwo Jima, now called Iwo To. The contractors prepared a report detailing their findings. Such intense interest was generated that a group of high-level Japanese government officials wanted to see the data for themselves.

As an American of Japanese decent with links to the Government of Japan, I was asked by the Consul General of Japan Los Angeles to assist in arranging this visit. Through the years I’ve worked with the White House advance office as a volunteer, setting up visits from foreign dignitaries. So I know how to do this and was glad to help. I believe that as our relationship with Japan has matured and grown stronger, there are still gaps. Everything is bilateral: The military deals with the military, and civilians deal with civilians. I’ve always felt these gaps should be filled and there should be more interchange between the civilian and the military. Here was an opportunity to do this.

CAPT Larry Vasquez, right, Commanding Officer of Naval Base Ventura County, presents commander’s coins to a delegation of Japanese dignitaries including Hiranao Honda, second right, and Yukihiko Akutsu, center, both members of the Japanese Diet, the equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Honda’s secretary Eiji Onishi, left.

The visit took place in April 2012 and it was quite a special occasion. Among the dignitaries were Hiranao Honda, Advisor to the Japanese Prime Minister, and Yukihiko Akutsu, Member of the Diet (House of Representative), the Japanese legislature. As part of protocol, the Commander Officer of Naval Base Ventura County welcomed the delegation. In true Navy tradition, visitors received the commanding officer’s Challenge Coin. They toured the museum, viewed the archives, and received a briefing. They saw firsthand the detailed records kept by the Seabees of everything they did from the time they landed at Iwo To until today.

A major concern was learning whether Japanese war dead were buried beneath a runway at Iwo To. The U.S. Navy still uses this runway for pilot training drills and has extended it. Archival documents, photos, and maps provided the Japanese with definitive evidence that the remains were not buried under the runway. This discovery allowed the delegation to reassure their constituents that they’d thoroughly investigated this issue and would continue to do all they could to locate the remains. It also saved the Japanese government the millions they would have spent in demolishing and rebuilding the runway.

The Japanese delegation was also briefed on the Seabees’ humanitarian work, including Operation Tomodachi, the U.S. military’s disaster relief effort following Japan’s 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. The Seabees brought in much-needed supplies and cleared debris and obstructions from several ports, allowing access for relief ships. The delegation was both surprised and impressed to learn about these efforts. Like many others, they did not realize all the good the Seabees do throughout the world. I have no doubt this visit strengthened our country’s bonds with Japan, once a fierce enemy but now a loyal ally, at a time when we need to keep our friends close.

The contributions of the Seabees go beyond building and fighting, and are often unnoticed. That’s why I think it’s more important than ever to support the Seabee Museum. In recognition of the Seabees’ 75th anniversary in March 2017, the CEC/Seabee Historical Foundation has launched a campaign to raise money for the museum. These funds will be used to expand exhibits that tell the Seabees’ story and also ensure that the archive is maintained as an important record of our history.

It’s great news that the museum is planning a humanitarian-themed exhibit for 2017. Not enough is known about the Seabees’ humanitarian efforts—how they help in times of disasters, as well as during times of war. It’s not just about what the Seabees did back in the day, during World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, and the Global War on Terror. It’s about the good they’re doing today in communities and countries throughout the world. Supporting the museum will help spread the word.

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1 Comment
  1. My dad was a Seabee 2nd Baattalion on Funafuti WW2
    He told me how him and a Marine friend had spotted Eddie Rickenbaker . Other accounts I’ve read never even mentioned that the Marine at his gun emplacement was first to spot Rickenbaker

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