Navy Seabees in Korea

1950-1953

by Larry G. DeVries

CAPT, CEC, USNR (Ret.)

(with contributions by Seabees who were there)


           

The story of the Navy Seabees and their performance during the Korean Conflict begins in the immediate post-World War II years. As with all of the U. S. armed services the Seabees were part of the release of active personnel during the 1945 to 1947 period. The World War was ended and over 12 million uniformed personnel were released from active duty beginning in 1945. (Source: History, Quick Study Guide, Bar Charts, Inc.).

There were several events during the post-war period that drew attention to possible future U. S. military actions. The period was one of developing world tension. The Soviet Union took over Hungary in 1947 and Czechoslovakia in 1948. The East Germans and the Soviets blocked the land access to the Allied sections of Berlin causing the Berlin Airlift during 1948-1949.  The U. S. armed forces, including reserve forces, were engaged in the Berlin Airlift. The explosion of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union in 1949 continued the escalation of tensions. (Source: History, Quick Study Guide).

            The Seabees on active duty dropped from over 250,000 during World War II to a level of 3,300 active duty Seabees in 1949. That number increased to 6,000 by 1950 primarily due to increasing demand for construction and maintenance support at naval bases and stations worldwide. In general, the post-war period was a time of smaller operations and austere budgets for the Navy and the Marine Corps. (Source: Naval Historical Center, web site, http://www.history.navy.mil)

On June 25, 1950, the North Koreans crossed the 38th parallel and entered South Korea. The U. S. forces were shocked initially and absorbed the attack while withdrawing to the south. The theater commander was General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander, Allied Powers Japan.

            The Naval Forces Far East Command, was under the command of Admiral C. Turner Joy, USN, since August 1949. He reported in Japan to General MacArthur, who was later designated, Commander in Chief, UN Command. The Far East Command, including the mission of logistics support, was located in Japan and its principle bases were at Yokohama, Guam and at Subic Bay in the Philippines. All were significant distances from any action in Korea. The operating fleet was the Seventh Fleet under VADM Arthur D. Struble, USN. (Source: Various)

            President Truman, reacting to the need for personnel for Korean operations, called out the nation’s reserve and National Guard units on 19 July 1950. As an example of the speed of mobilization, the first Marine Corps Reserve units reached Camp Pendleton, California, on 31 July 1950. (“First To Fight”, V. Krulak, 1984). By September 1, 1950, call-ups had brought in about 256,000 men into the three services. (Source: “A General’s Life, Gen. O. Bradley, 1983, p. 546). There were about 120 Marine Reserve training units at the time many co-located with Naval Reserve Centers. ("Unexpected Journey" by Randy K. Mills and Roxanne Mills, 2000).

            The Seabees supported the U. S. Marine Corps in Korea as they had done in World War II. This was especially true of airfield maintenance and construction. The transition from prop-driven planes to jet aircraft occurred during the Conflict. From an engineering viewpoint the Pierced Steel Planking, or Marston mat, used so successfully as main runways in World War II for piston-engine aircraft, did not stand up to the punishment put out by jet aircraft. That fact demanded new methods and materials in airfield runway construction and a six-inch blacktop layer was often used. Cold weather, approximately that of northern Maine, and hot weather, approximately that of Washington, D. C., contributed to the stress on the work and the Seabees. The shortage of native skilled labor and lack of local supply sources contributed to the challenges of construction. (Source: “History of United States Military Logistics, 1935-1985”, J. Peppers, Jr., LEF, 1988.).

The Korean War can be divided by the Marine Corps Engagements into distinct periods. These are:

 27 June – 2 November 1950                        North Korean Aggression
13 September – 17 September 1950             Assault on Inchon-Seoul
3 November 1950 – 24 January 1951           Communist China Aggression
25 January – 21 April 1951                          First U. N. Counter Offensive

22 April – 8 July  1951                                   Communist China Spring Offensive
9 July – 27 November 1951                          U. N. Summer-Fall Offensive

28 November 1951 – 30 April 1952              Second Korean Winter

1 May – 30 November 1952                          Korean Defense Summer-Fall, 1952

1 December 1952 – 30 April 1953                 Third Korean Winter
1 May – 27 July 1953                                     Korean Summer-Fall, 1953

(Source: “Almanac of Naval Facts”, USNI, 1964, Marine Corps Highlights)

            Active duty Seabee battalions were not deployed to Korea as complete Mobile Construction Battalion units. The active duty Seabees were called upon to provide smaller construction units. The active duty units (see Table 1, Navy Seabee Units in Korea) were:

NCB-104 was formed by reactivation of a World War II unit in 1947. It arrived at Camp McGill, Japan, at the outbreak of the Korean Conflict. It was shortly converted into ACB-1. Strength about __?__.

General MacArthur landed with the United Nations forces at Inchon, South Korea, on September 15, 1950, successfully and drove north. The Seabees of ACB-1 were attached to the Ist Marine Division and were part of the landing force under RADM James H. Doyle, USN, Commander, Amphibious Force at Inchon.

ACB-1 , Amphibious Construction Battalion -1, was organized in 1950 from NCB-104. It served at Inchon , Wolmi-Do, Red and Blue Beaches, and Yo Island in the Bay of Wonsan. Strength about __?__. Assigned to the 1st Marine Division (Source: Fire and Ice, M. Varhola, p. 111). Part of Task Force 90, and Operation Chromite, U. S. Army X Corps, during the Inchon landing (September 1950) and was part of landing of The Wonsan Campaign (October 1950).

The ACB-1 Seabees were landed on 15 September 1950 as part of the landing force under ____?____ Task Force 90. Their effort was directed at providing the pontoon causeways necessary to unload LSTs. [Photo A: Seabees at Inchon, 19 September 1950]

In May 1952, the ACB-1 Seabees managed to build an emergency airstrip on the small island of Yo Do while under heavy enemy fire. They built the 2,400-foot airstrip in 16 days. During the work, they were forced to repair the new shell holes made daily by the enemy batteries across the bay. During the year it was used, it saved more than 60 fliers and at least $10 million in aircraft. (Source for this and (*): Mobilizer, May-June 1992, p. 13; The Korean War, B. Catchpole, 2000, p. 235).

Other than NCB-104, in Japan at the outbreak, later converted into ACB-1, which deployed with MacArthur during the Inchon landing, only smaller-than-battalion size units were deployed and those were Detachments.

During the Korean War, the U.N. Far East Air Force (FEAF) used some 15 air bases in Japan to support combat operations in Korea. In addition, the Air Force either improved or constructed some 55 airfields. These air bases were all numbered and some became better known by their number than by their name. The more important of these airfields included: (Source: http://www.korea50.mil; definitions)

K-1 Pusan West

K-8 Kunsan

K-16 Seoul

K-2 Taegu

K-9 Pusan East

K-40 Cheju-do Island

K-3 Pohang-dong

K-10 Chinhae

K-46 Hoengsong

K-5 Taejon

K-13 Suwon

K-47 Chunchon

K-6 Pyongtaek

K-14 Kimpo

K-55 Osan

The "K" stood for Korea in the designation. The US Army also had "A" (Army) airfields and "AE" (Army Expedition) airfields. The USMC had designated their fields by "X" early in the conflict. (Ref: bottom)

The Seabees took on many projects during the Korean Conflict, including building airstrips, clearing mined tunnels, and repairing ships.

CBD-1804, Construction Battalion Detachment-1804, as organized in 1951 at Atsugi, Japan, where MCB-2 was at the time. This Detachment was deployed to K-3, Pohang, South Korea, in 1951. [Photo B: CBD-1804 deploys by ship from Japan to Korea, October 1951]. [Photo C: CBD-1804 deploys to K-3 by Marine aircraft, October 1951]

CBD-1804 was operational at K-3. [Photo D: CBD-1804 Seabees in a group photo at K-3 in the spring of 1952], [Photo E: Rockcrusher operational at K-3, 1952] [Photo F: CBD-1804 camp site at K-6, Pyongtaek in 1953]. Later, CBD-1804 was re-designated CBMU-1 while in Korea.

The CBMU-1 unit, Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit -1, was later re-designated CBMU-101 while at K-3. [Photo G: CE electrical utility work at K-3, 1953] [ Photo H: Two Seabees taking a break from work at K-3 in 1953]

SEABEES IN THE KOREAN WAR (Source: http://www.history.navy.mil)

In June 1950, following the invasion of South Korea by the armies of communist North Korea, the Seabees found themselves at war again. As part of the United States contingent of the United Nations force, they rose to the challenge in the tradition of their "Can Do" predecessors. By a calling-up reservists, their active-duty force was expanded to more than 14,000.

On 15 September 1950 U.S. troops landed at Inchon in what has come to be known as one of the most brilliant amphibious assaults in history. Seabees (ACB-1) achieved renown as the men who made it possible. Battling enormous thirty-foot tides and a swift current while under continuous enemy fire, they positioned pontoon causeways within hours of the first beach assault. Following the landing, the incident known as the "Great Seabee Train Robbery" took place. The need to break the equipment bottleneck at the harbor inspired a group of Seabees to steal behind enemy lines and capture some abandoned locomotives. Despite enemy mortar fire, they brought the engines back intact and turned them over to the Army Transportation Corps.

In October Seabees (ACB-1) ran their pontoon structures ashore again and set up another operating port at Wonsan. When the strenuous harbor construction and camp operations ceased to fill their days, they branched into the unusual tasks of inspecting North Korean armament on an abandoned mine-layer, clearing mined tunnels, and performing repair work on nearby ships.

When the Chinese Communists joined the retreating North Koreans to launch another full scale invasion of South Korea, the Seabees were compelled to redouble their efforts -- this time to help the retreating U.N. forces. At Hungwan, Wonsan, and Inchon, where Seabees had been instrumental in putting U.N. forces ashore, Seabee pontoon causeways were now loaded with troops and equipment going the other way.

By February, however, the tide turned once again and the Seabees returned to Inchon for another landing. They found their previously constructed harbor facilities in a state of ruin, but, miraculously enough, some of their sturdy pontoon structures were still in place. After a rapid repair job, men and equipment streamed ashore again.

Seabee participation in the Korean War was certainly not limited to amphibious operations. Another of their outstanding contributions was in that specialty of their World War II predecessors -- airfield construction. Seabees could be found throughout the war zone constructing, repairing, and servicing the K-fields of the various Marine Air Groups. The Seabees were broken up into numerous detachments and each was assigned to an airfield designated with a "K" number, such as K-3 at Pohang, K-18 at Kimbo, and K-2 at Taegu.

Keeping the planes flying was an arduous and often dangerous task. At one small airstrip on the 36th Parallel, chuck holes were opening up in the failing concrete faster than they could be repaired. As it was absolutely vital that the field remain open, the undaunted Seabees graded, poured, and patched one side of the runway while bomb-laden aircraft continued to fly off the other side.

Seabee relations with the Marine Corps were further cemented by a group of nine Seabees who kept a 21-mile stretch of road open between an isolated Marine intercept squadron and its source of supplies. They worked round-the-clock in five-below-zero temperatures to successfully fulfill their promise to rebuild any damaged bridge within six hours.

One of the most incredible Seabee feats (ACB-1) of the war took place on the small island of Yo in the Bay of Wonsan. In communist hands again in 1952, Wonsan was a key supply and transportation center for the enemy. As such, carrier-based aircraft strikes against Wonsan and points deeper in the interior were numerous and constant. Planes were hit by enemy fire daily leaving their pilots with the unhappy choice of either ditching at sea or attempting to land in enemy-held territory. The need for an emergency airstrip was critical and, under the code name Operation "Crippled Chick," a detachment of Seabees (ACB-1) came to the rescue. Put ashore on Yo Island, they were given 35 days to construct a runway. Working under constant artillery bombardment from neighboring enemy positions, they managed to complete the 2,400-foot airstrip in only 16 days. By a prearranged signal, "Steak is Ready," the Seabees signaled that the job was done, and nine damaged aircraft landed on the new field that same day.

The rapid demobilization that followed the Second World War was not repeated after the signing of the Korean Armistice in July 1953. Crises in Berlin, Cuba, Africa, South America, and especially in Southeast Asia created the necessity to maintain military strength and preparedness. Seabee Reservists had helped meet the Korean crisis, but the onset of the Cold War had indicated the need for a basic reorganization of Seabee capabilities as well as for increased Seabee numbers. Between 1949 and 1953, 13 battalions of two distinct types were accordingly established. The new establishments signified a gain in greater battalion mobility and specialization. The first type, the new Amphibious Construction Battalions, were landing and docking units. An integral part of the Fleet Amphibious Forces, their mission was to place causeways and ship-to-shore fuel lines, construct pontoon docks, and perform other functions necessary for the expeditious landing of men, equipment, and supplies. Naval Mobile Construction Battalions constituted the second type. They were responsible for land construction of a wide variety, including camps, roads, tank farms, airstrips, permanent waterfront structures, and many other base facilities.

The Seabees grew from their strength of 3,300 just prior to Korea (in 1949) up to 14,000 at the peak strength during the Korean Conflict. The authorized strength of a Mobile Construction Battalion was five hundred and fifty men but actual strength varied.

The standard issue rifle was the M-1 .30 caliber Garand rifle, but some Seabees were reportedly issued M-1903.30-06 caliber Springfield rifles in training, a carry-over from WW II. The .45 cal. pistol was a standard sidearm. The Seabee’s uniform was a mixed assortment. Seabees on active duty in-theater Korea wore Marine Corps issue uniforms while some of those in training in the States including Reservists wore the white cap with blue work dungarees and a Navy work jacket.

The Seabee detachments in Korea varied in size, equipment and capability depending on the jobs at assigned. About _____ Seabees served in Korea itself with _?__ KIA, and _?__ WIA with __?__ deaths by accidents and other causes.

            Rear Admiral Joseph F. Jelley, CEC, USN, had been Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, and the Seabees, since 12-1-1949. He continued to serve in that position until 11-3-1953. The worldwide U. S. network of wartime bases and stations remained after the war and the Navy’s were still in existence in the late 1940’s. BUDOCKS, therefore, had responsibilities and missions in many places around the globe. Seabee units deployed in the Atlantic, Caribbean, European and Mediterranean areas came through Davisville, Rhode Island. For the Pacific sites units were staged out of Advance Base Depot, Port Hueneme, California. The 30th Naval Construction Regiment, originally based in Port Hueneme, then deployed to Subic Bay, Phillippines, was the Seabee Regiment in Charge for the Far East.

Seabee battalions of the Korean era:

MCB-1 was activated at Davisville, RI, in August, 1949. Did not serve in Korea (?)

MCB-2 was activated at Port Hueneme, CA, in June 1950. Did not serve in Korea (?).

          

Formed and staged from Advanced Base Depot, Port Hueneme, California:

MCB-3 was activated in July, 1950.

MCB-4 was activated in __?_1950.

MCB-5, MCB-6, MCB-7, MCB-8 and MCB-9 were activated later during the Conflict but did not serve in Korea.

MCB-10 was formed in October, 1952.

MCB-11 was formed in July, 1953. Both Ten and Eleven did not serve in Korea.

CBMU-1 was activated in July, 1952, and served in Korea.

CBMU-2 was activated in October, 1953, and served in Japan only.

(Reference: “U. S. Navy Seabees Since Pearl Harbor”, Jay Kimmel, 1995).

            A Korean era project that occupied many Seabees was begun in the Philippines in 1951. It was at this time that the Seabees began building the naval base there at Cubi Point. Three thousand Seabees from MCB-2, 3, 5, 9, and 11 spent the next five years expending over 20 million man-hours building the installation for the United States Seventh Fleet. (“Mobilizer, May-June 1992, p. 13).

Reserve Seabees

The Seabees were created in WW II and their ratings were considered Reserve ratings. In fact, all World War II Seabee construction personnel were designated  “USNR”. All Seabees remaining on active duty continued in that status before the Navy made them a permanent part of the Navy and classified construction ratings as permanent  “USN” in 1947. (Source: Navy Historical Society web page, Seabee History).

            The Naval Reserve had existed since 1916 but the Seabees were not a part of the Naval Reserve as the Seabees had been created during World War II. After a period of post-war review the Seabees became an official part of the Naval Reserve on December 31, 1947. There were several factors. World tensions resulted in more concern that a future conflict would result in the need for activation of reserve personnel of all services. In 1947 the Truman Doctrine announced U. S. intention to support any peoples resisting “subjugation … or outside pressures.” The reserve forces of all other services were increased and so were those of the Naval Reserve.

Just prior to the Korean Conflict the Naval Reserve had 316 Naval Reserve Training Centers, twenty-one Naval Reserve air stations, and 104 ships assigned exclusively to Naval Reserve training. The Reserve Seabee program was organized consisting of Seabee Companies each consisting of 4 officers and up to 40 enlisted men at a Naval Reserve Training Center. In 1951 the total organized allowance of 234 Seabee Companies was about 1,100 officers and 9,000 enlisted men. The Seabee Companies were organized in about 200 Naval Training Centers. Reserve Seabee Companies were not deployable units, therefore, no Reserve Seabee units served in the Korean era. (Source: “Citizen Sailors: The U. S. Naval Reserve in War and Peace, W. Kreh, 1969; Naval and Maritime Chronology)

The effect of the Reserve program was felt when the Korean Conflict began. The Navy called on the Seabee Reserve for skilled construction men to bolster the regular force. Within a few weeks volunteers from across the country had been activated and had proceeded to their ports of embarkation. Within a few months more than 60% of the Seabees on active duty were Reservists. Many of them were veterans of World War II having joined the reserve program since 1947. Later in the war, when over 10,000 newly enlisted Seabees had been added to the force, the percentage of Reserves in units dropped to below 50%. (Source: “Shield of the Republic”, by M. Isenberg, 1993).

Naval Reserve

“During the Korean Conflict the Naval Reserve mobilized about 185,000 members. About 7,500 of those were Reserve Seabees. Of the 230,000 officers and enlisted added to the rolls during the first eight months of the Korean Conflict, half were Reservists, and of these, 70 percent were at sea, doing their jobs, by March 1951. Overall, Navy manpower increased by 60 percent, and the number of combatant ships went up by 50 percent. By November 1951 fully 75 percent of all Navy air sorties over Korea were being flown by Reservists.” (Source: “Shield of the Republic”, by M. Isenberg, 1993).

            Over 1,177,000 Navy personnel served in Korea. Of these, 458 sailors were killed in action, 1,576 suffered wounds, and 4,043 succumbed to injury or disease. Without the dedicated service and sacrifices made by Navy men and women, ashore and afloat, the United Nations would not have been able to preserve the independence of the Republic of Korea or achieve the armistice agreement with the Communist belligerents that ended the conflict on 27 July 1953. (Source: The Navy, Naval Historical Foundation, 2000; verified by the 1989 World Almanac).

End

(final to include photos)


UT3 Conrad Lawlor, USNR, from Ames, Iowa, and the Dubuque (Iowa) Naval Training Center was attached to CBMU-1, deployed near airfield K-13 Suwon in support of the 1st Marine Air Wing.

His photo history shown below may be typical of the sights, locations, work and travels of Seabees in Korea, if there was such a thing as a typical Seabee experience. (Ref: From: Conrad Lawlor ([lawlor@lowatelecom.net])

1.. Korean tungsten mine being worked by hands of Koreans.

2.. Conrad Lawlor on bomb crate rocker made for me because I was the "old man" of the group. (age 24)

3.. I will tell you later when I can see this better.

4.. Latrines for us enlisted men.

5.. More later.

6.. Some local children, they may be orphans.

7.. Fighter bomber, probably AD or Corsair, over airfield.

8.. Airplanes on our strip at Suwon.

9.. More of same.

10.. Bridge over the Han River south of Seoul.

11.. Conrad standing, Metal worker George Hawk cutting steel for project. Steel traded from Army.

12.. Antiaircraft half track in our backyard, near our dugout.

13.. British aircraft at our base.

14.. South Gate, Seoul, a famous place then and now in the middle Seoul.

15.. Seoul airport bringing wounded on transport.

16.. Burned out Koran capitol complex Seoul

17.. I believe this was the old city gate in Suwon

18.. UT3 Conrad Lawlor on his favorite rocking chair.

19.. Some of the Seabees.

20.. On the main road to Seoul

21.. Salt marsh north of airstrip.

22.. UT3 Conrad Lawlor, USNR

23.. Our digs in Korea.

24.. CBMU 1 sign with Conrad Lawlor and a friend who name escapes me now.


USMCR Note: In 1950, the Korean War saw the Marine Corps expand from 75,000 regulars to a peak strength of 261,000 Marines, most of whom were reservists. Complete mobilization of the organized ground Reserve had been accomplished in just 53 days, from July 20 to Sept. 11, 1950. Of the Marines participating in the Inchon invasion, 17 percent were reservists. By June 1951, the proportion of reservists in Marine Corps units in Korea had increased to nearly 50 percent, and during the war, 48 percent of all 1st Marine Aircraft Wing combat sorties were flown by Marine reservists. Between July 1950 and June 1953, about 122,000 reservists, both recruits and veterans, saw active duty with the Marine Corps. (Source: http://www.korea50.mil; Marine Fact Sheet).


******Seabee Oral History Reference (2001)******

I am pretty sure that MCB-2 and MCB-3 did not serve in Korea. In 1951 before going to Korea CBD-1804 was organized in Atsugi, Japan where MCB-2 was at that time. MCB-3 was in the Philippines during that

period of time.

The only Seabee units that I know were in Korea during the War were CBD-1804, CBMU-1 and CBMU-101 (these were all the same unit, just changed names twice). ACB-1 was in and out of Korea. They were involved in both Inchon landings and one Inchon evacuation. ACB-1 was also known to show up in beach landings in Korea for short periods of time. A few days before the Truce was signed, a group of ACB-1 people landed on the beach a few miles from Pohang, Korea and shortly after the Truce was signed they disappeared "under the cloak of darkness".  I also once got email from someone that said they were a part of a Seabee cargo handling unit that served in Korea during the war.

-from Pat Morris. Active Duty Seabee, Korea (pat@weblube.com)


Table 1

Navy Seabee Units in Korea

1950 – 1953

Unit Designation Location Commanding Officer Strength Deployed to / fm
ACB-1                     Inchon Landing, Wosan, (1st Marine Division); Inchon (second) (while assigned to 7th Fleet)    500 (est.)   ??? 1950 - Sept 1950
ACB-1
CDR A. T. Roth, CEC, USN Oct 1950 - Nov 1951
ACB-1
CDR J. F. Staniumas, CEC, USN Nov 1951 - Jan 1953
ACB-1
CDR W. C. Bowers, CEC, USN Jan 1953 - Oct 1953
ACB-1
LCDR G. L. Moeller, CEC, USN Oct 1953 - Feb 1954
CBD-1804   K-3 LCDR Cameron W. Lee, CEC, USN 32+2 (est.) 12 Oct 1951 - 30 June 1952
CBMU-1   K-3 LCDR Cameron W. Lee, CEC, USN 357 (est.)    1 July 1952 - 30 Sept 1953
CBMU-101     K-3 CDR O. E. Forbess, CEC, USN 594 (est.)    1 Oct 1953 - ??? 1954
- Detail
K-2 . . .
- Detail
K-3 . . .
- Detail
K-6 . . .
- Detail
K-13 . . .
- Detail
K-18 . . .
- Detail
K-55 . . .
30th NCR  Subic Bay, Phillippines   ________________    __ (est.)   ??? - ???    

(*) also, LT Richard W. Trompeter, CEC, and LT James T. Taylor, CEC


Airfields in Korea:

There were about 40 "A" fields, 70 "AE" fields, and 40 "K" fields with 7 of those 40 also designated as "A". For example, Taegu 2 was "K-37" but also "A-3" and "K-38" was also "A-34". (Ref: Airfields, "Encyclopedia of the Korean War", by S. C. Tucker).

Airfields with Seabees in Korea:

K-2, Taegu,

K-3, Pohang,

K-6, P'yong Taek

K-13, 1st MAW USMC site (Corsairs and AD’s)

K-18, (Seoul), Kimpo

K-55, Osan


(c) Copyright 2002 by Larry G. DeVries (of all original work). All rights reserved.

end