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That Was Quite An Experience

That Was Quite An Experience

Editor’s note:  Samuel Florman is a civil engineer, general contractor, and the author of seven books and several hundred articles. As Chairman of Kreisler Borg Florman, he led one of the top construction firms in the New York City tri-state area. He’s made dozens of speeches and presentations at engineering schools and engineering society meetings, and earned many awards and honors over the years. In 1995 he was elected to serve as a member of the National Academy of Engineering.  We recently had the chance to talk with Mr. Florman, who shared reflections of his time with the 29th Naval Construction Battalion and discussed the ongoing need for successful engineers, strong education, and support for the Seabees.

As Sam Florman tells it, “it was a most unusual time.” The time was August 1945, and he was with the Seabees, crossing the Pacific in the direction of Japan. He’d already had a number of interesting experiences. Born and raised in New York City, educated at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, he enrolled at Dartmouth College in the early months of World War II. Entering college as a civilian in July 1942 — most schools had started a year-round program — he discovered the Navy’s V-12 program on campus and enlisted in it. After a year as a civilian student, he was called to active duty, put on a sailor’s uniform, learned to march in formation and to shout out orders lustily enough to satisfy a Chief Petty Officer. Attending classes, mainly in the Thayer School, Dartmouth’s engineering facility, he earned his degree in early 1945 and was sent by the Navy Civil Engineer Corps to Officers Training Camp in Rhode Island. A two-month course in military leadership led to a commission. Two months more, devoted to exercises in weaponry and warfare, and off he went to the Pacific to join a Seabee battalion.

Newly enlisted Florman

Sam in the Philippines

Florman, the young officer

At that moment in 1945, a number of Seabee battalions were being readied in the Pacific for the invasion of Japan. But fate had a twist for Florman, his comrades, and the world. “Just as we set sail,” he recalls, “we heard that some special sort of a bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima; and by the time we arrived in the Philippines, the war was coming to an end.” Instead of invading Japan, the several Seabee battalions were given a variety of post-war destinations. Sam Florman joined the 29th Seabee Battalion, and after two months of repairing roads in the Philippines, that organization received orders to gather an assortment of heavy construction equipment and to set sail for Truk. That atoll, today called Chuuck, had been headquarters for the Japanese fleet, bombed repeatedly by the Allies, but never invaded because of surrounding coral reefs.

“That was quite an experience,” Florman recalls. “There were 40,000 Japanese on that island, that atoll, when we landed. A battalion of Marines had preceded us — purportedly for security —but amidst so many of the erstwhile enemy, one had to feel uneasy. According to terms of the surrender, some 3,000 of those Japanese — who until that point had been hated mortal enemy — were to remain on Truk to help rebuild a camp much of which had been bombed into rubble. Those 3,000 Japanese were to stay on Truk to do the rebuilding work under the direction of an American force. The 29th Seabee Battalion was that force.

Florman was given responsibility for the building of an earthfill dam to serve the needs of a water supply system. This put him in charge of a team of three Seabees, and about two dozen Japanese. What followed was not just a lesson in engineering, but a lesson in life. As Florman reported in an Op-Ed column written some years later for The New York Times, “the workers settled into an efficient working routine interspersed with episodes of playfulness.”  “The Japanese lieutenant and I,” he continued, “inhibited by notions of military protocol, did not warm up to each other right away. But enthusiasm for the task at hand, and pride in the progress made, led to mutual respect and, eventually, to friendship.”

Constructing the Characters Dam

Florman stayed on Truk for a year, enjoying chances to operate construction equipment as well as supervising the work of others. As the peace-time atmosphere gradually reduced tensions, he was also sent to visit other Pacific island bases as a “courier” between Seabee encampments. Returning to civilian life, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights, rounding out his education before entering the job market. Honoring a central theme of Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, he filled out the liberal arts aspect of his studies, earning a master’s degree in English Literature at Columbia. He later took a few engineering courses in night school at N.Y.U., and eventually he was granted a graduate Civil Engineer degree by Dartmouth.

In the post-war reawakening real estate market, and especially coming from the Seabees, he found it easy to get jobs with construction companies. At first, he did some work with a house builder. Then, he tells us, “for a little adventure I got a job in the developing oil fields of Venezuela. And, as a last young-guy hurrah, I took the oil-field money and spent it traveling around Europe for a couple of months.”

Florman at the KBF office in New York

Once home, his work in the New York City-area construction industry took him on a rocket ride to success in his field. Well, rocket ride is not exactly how he describes things. After a few years working for others, he joined two young pioneers who had just started a firm of their own, and from 1955 to 2015, a period of sixty years, the company named Kreisler Borg Florman (KBF) moved steadily onward and upward. Florman reminds us that “next to restaurants, construction is the most failure-prone industry that there is.”  But in spite of occasional scares and setbacks, the firm evolved steadily from small town repairs and additions to suburban schools and commercial building, then hospitals and central city housing projects. The crowning achievement prior to retirement was the 76-story, $700 million tower in lower Manhattan known as “New York by Gehry”.

New York by Gehry

The Corinthian

The Metropolis

The Austin

There have also been successes in his “second career” as author, most notably The Existential Pleasures of Engineering, and a memoir: Good Guys, Wiseguys and Putting Up BuildingsAnd most important, good fortune with family:  Quoting Winston Churchill, “I got married and lived happily ever afterward.” Two sons, a lawyer and a doctor, five granddaughters and one great grandson round out a happy evolution.

When it comes to the next generation of engineers, Florman knows how important the Seabees are in fostering STEM education. “I know they do good work,” he says. “One way to do good is to help the next generation study in their specialty.”

The Seabee Historical Foundation salutes Sam Florman on his many achievements and appreciates his continuing dedication to the Seabees and the fields of construction and engineering. The Seabees are proud to have played a role in his extraordinary life.

You can learn more about Sam Florman’s life and career at his website and in the memoir noted above.

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