Joe Buff is a professional writer on national security and defense preparedness. He is also a novelist of tales of near-future warfare featuring nuclear submariners and Navy SEALs in action at their bravest and best. Two of Joe's non-fiction articles on future submarine technology and tactics, which appeared in The Submarine Review, received literary awards from the Naval Submarine League. His latest novel, Crush Depth, made the Military Book Club's Top 20 Bestseller List after being selected as a Featured Alternate of the Club in late 2002. His next work, Tidal Rip, will be released from Wm. Morrow in hardcover in November, 2003.
Joe is a Life Member of the following organizations: U.S. Naval Institute, the Navy League of the United States, the Fellows of the Naval War College, CEC/Seabees Historical Foundation, and the Naval Submarine League. Joe's father was an enlisted man in the Navy (Seabees in the Pacific Theater) from 1948 through 1953, and his uncle was a merchant mariner on the North Atlantic convoys late in World War II, before being drafted into the U.S. Army to serve in the Occupation of Nazi Germany.
Are Navy Seabees a type of special forces? A lot of folks, including even some people in the military, think that the Navy Seabees no longer exist. Perhaps that classic John Wayne movie, “The Fighting Seabees,” did its job too well. It seems to have imprinted on the public mind the concept that Seabees were just a World War II thing. But ‘tain’t so. Seabees -- or as they’re known officially, Navy Mobile Construction Battalions -- have existed continuously since they were first established at a base in Davisville, RI, in 1942. They have, literally, been “busy as bees” for decades, serving in every major armed conflict up to and including Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the ongoing reconstruction in Iraq.
As my bio says right next to this essay, my late father was a Seabee, so I’m naturally interested in the subject. My interest was heightened earlier this year when, through Military.com, I heard from a retired reservist Seabee chief. As I looked at some of the news items and photos and memorabilia he pointed me toward, I began to form a question or hypothesis: Are Seabees in fact, in modern terms, actually a type of Special Forces? I emphasize at the outset that this notion represents no one’s view but my own, and I do not in any way speak for such important organizations as the Navy Seabees Veterans Association or the CEC/Seabees Historical Foundation. (CEC stands for the Navy’s Civil Engineering Corps -- which I suspect in many cases the “man or woman on the street” never even heard of!)
But let’s think about this. We need to address three issues:
What do we mean by Special Forces?
Exactly what do Seabees do?
How much overlap is there between the answers to the first two issues?
Let’s take these issues one at a time.
Special Forces have definitions that vary between the different branches of our country’s military, and also change over time as external challenges change. The U.S. Air Force has their Special Tactics and Pararescue Teams, the Navy has the UDTs and SEALs, the Army has the Green Berets and Delta Force, and the Marines have Marine Recon, just to name a few groups that undoubtedly come under the umbrella of Special Forces or Special Warfare. These different teams have certain traits and skills in common: Each is a force-multiplier for major warfighting units. That is, they provide strong leverage well out of proportion to their size and logistics requirements, to help make regular formations on the battlefield also be effective out of proportion to their actual size, equipment, and adequacy of re-supply. Every Special Forces unit member is trained not only in combat skills, but also in improvisation, unconventional thinking, and initiative “outside the box,” to a very intensive degree. Each Special Forces unit also can play an active role in humanitarian missions, helping win hearts and minds in foreign lands during any armed conflict -- or helping save lives in natural disasters ranging from famines to earthquakes, too. Special Forces often work on turf or in surf controlled or dominated by an enemy, deploying in both rural and urban settings. (This might be the closest thing to “going behind enemy lines” that we’ll see during an era of increasing Fourth Generation Warfare.) Special Forces seldom take immediate part in front-line set-piece offensive operations.
Now, what do Seabees do? Seabees are trained for combat, but usually don’t serve in front-line offensive ops; yet their weapons training and qualification standards are very rigorous -- they are definitely not support or rear-area personnel. Their specialty is erecting good things and neutralizing bad things, whether this be building roads leading inland from an amphibious assault beach or through a swamp, or sealing up caves containing enemy snipers, or laying water pipelines to serve parched areas, or building and improving hospitals and schools. The level of ingenuity in solving open-ended problems while under fire, demonstrated by each generation of Seabees, is (or certainly should be) something of legend. Seabees routinely operate bulldozers or jackhammers while enemy bullets and shrapnel fly on their often-hellish worksites around the globe. They do so with the same courage and determination that Soldiers or Marines operate main battle tanks, or machine guns. The only difference is that their primary implements are “unconventional” as weapons go: They’re construction tools.
The overlap between the work of Seabees and that of recognized Special Forces is probably starting to emerge as you read this. But, you may say, it’s not the same. True Special Forces participate in classified ops, or work in extreme climatic conditions. A couple of examples might then interest you:
1. In the early 1960s, 500 Seabees of Navy Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 4, then home ported in Davisville, gave direct support to some of the most classified activities ever maintained by America. They voyaged to Holy Loch, Scotland, to build from disassembled sections an entire floating dry dock, to service our Submarine Fleet conducting strategic deterrent patrols against the Soviet Union, playing a deadly game of Cold War “Blind Man’s Bluff.” This assembly task continued virtually 24/7/365 until it was finished in record time -- which even so, took about a year.
2. For decades Seabees participated in Operation Deep Freeze in Antarctica, performing most heavy construction done for the U.S. on that continent -- in support of scientific research and other activities, some of them possibly classified. The Seabees enjoyed summers where the temperature was often 30 below zero Fahrenheit, and sometimes “wintered over” where the temperature with wind chill fell below minus 100 -- and every single aspect of daily activity risked life and limb.
Before we wrap up by exploring the common lineage of today’s Seabees and “real” Navy Special Warfare units, here are two samples of recent Seabees humanitarian projects. (If these examples bring to mind the Green Berets in Vietnam, perhaps it’s not just coincidence!)
1. Seabees assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force’s Engineer Group participated in a grim but vital effort: the exhumation of thousands of bodies from the now-infamous mass graves of the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein -- so that these victims of oppression could stand a chance to be identified, and the remains given proper burial by their loved ones in Iraq. Is it possible for anyone who has never done such work to imagine the commitment involved, and the psychological toll, on those Seabees who performed this duty? The mental endurance required to keep at it constantly must have rivaled the emotional toughness demanded of America’s most hardened Special Forces troops.
2. On a more upbeat note, Seabees detailed to Bahrain (an island nation in the Persian Gulf next to Saudi Arabia) as part of NMCB-4, applied their construction skills on behalf of man’s best friend: Using only donated and excess materials, they installed a much-needed air-conditioning system in a local humane society, where homeless dogs were suffering from summertime heat of over 110 degrees. The Seabees did this while they had a few extra days before returning to their own homes in the U.S. of A. (NMCB-4 is now home ported in Port Heuneme, CA. Yup, it’s the same outfit that 40+ years ago built that submarine dry dock in Scotland. Those guys do get around.)
The first Seabees were created of necessity, in World War II, to help in the Pacific island-hopping campaign. As a result they cut their teeth in combat working in and around seawater, dealing with beach obstacles and other hydrographic hazards -- not to mention incoming Japanese fire. The Navy soon realized the need for an even more specialized group, which became the Underwater Demolition Teams, the UDTs. Early in Vietnam, JFK ordered a new Special Forces group be created. This offshoot of the UDTs was the U.S. Navy SEALs. The Seabees are thus an ancestor of the Special Warfare community of today. It’s a “blood” relationship in every sense of the word.
So, are Seabees really Special Forces? Maybe not in the formal context of the phrase, but they’re certainly very “special” forces no matter how you look at them.