Tuesday, September 25, 2007
‘We build, we fight’ (MNA Sept. 07)
Manistee’s Karl Wagner remembers his days as a WWII Seabee
By CEAN BURGESON
“The Seabee recruiter came through Manistee and said, ‘you better sign up with me before the army catches you,’” said 92-year-old Karl Wagner. “That’s how I happened to get in the Seabees.”
It turned out to be a fortuitous move on his part. “I had a second class rating right off the bat, which was twice the pay of a private in the army.” Wagner entered the service in September of 1943.
The history of the United States Navy Seabees in World War II begins with the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. After the attack and the United States’ entry into the war, the use of civilian labor in war zones became impractical. The Navy therefore created Construction Battalions (from which the abbreviation C.B. became Seabees).
The official motto of the Seabees is "Construimus, Batuimus" – translated into English as "We Build, We Fight." The Seabees have several unofficial mottos as well. Their best known unofficial motto is the simple phrase "Can Do!", featured on much of their promotional material, including the well-known recruitment posters of the era.
After training, Wagner was shipped via troop train to Pleasanton, Calif., then to a port city called Hueneme. “That was the port where they say 90 percent of war material went from overseas,” said Wagner. “The Seabees had a big camp there.”
Here, Wagner’s battalion was divided in half, with his half eventually finding themselves on a tiny island 100 miles from the southmost tip of Japan. “They took us in on LST’s (landing ship, tank) to Ioshima, where Ernie Pyle got killed.”
Wagner was on the island the day that the famous war journalist died. “They said that he was in a jeep with an army officer, and they were shot at, so they got into a ditch there, and Ernie Pyle, after a while, he looked up over the ditch, and a sharpshooter killed him.”
Ioshima had other claims to fame as well. “The island was only about two and a half by five miles wide, and maybe six miles from Okinawa,” said Wagner. “Ioshima was a pretty important island, that’s where the Japanese surrender plane came. They came to Ioshima in a little Betty bomber (Japanese G4M airplane). It wasn’t very big. MacArthur had a big C-54 plane to take him over to the peace talks. We saw all of that.”
While on the island, the main job of Wagner’s Seabee unit was to construct buildings, roads, and airstrips, all while living out of tents. Seabees in the Pacific Theater of Operations earned the gratitude of all Allied fighting men who served with them or followed in their wake. Their deeds were unparalleled in the history of wartime construction. With eighty percent of the Naval Construction Force concentrated in the Pacific, they literally built and fought their way to victory.
“We saw a lot of suicide planes. I remember once, a Jap plane hit these two ships, and put them in flames. It was sad,” says Wagner. “There were Jap suicide planes that demolished ships, and a couple of days later, they would come back and hit ‘em again. One anti-aircraft gun,” he remembers, “shot the engine right out of the fuselage of one.”
Wagner only remembers one man from his unit being seriously wounded. “I’ll tell you, those Japanese planes would come over the island with their bombs, sometimes pretty low. There was one chief standing in the doorway of the sickbay, and they said he got his leg shot off, so he was shipped off.”
Although Seabees were only supposed to fight to defend what they built, such acts of heroism were numerous. In all, Seabees earned 33 Silver Stars and 5 Navy Crosses during World War II. But they also paid a price: 272 enlisted men and 18 officers killed in action. In addition to deaths sustained as a result of enemy action, more than 500 Seabees died in accidents, as construction is essentially a hazardous business.
In the North, Central, South and Southwest Pacific areas, the Seabees built 111 major airstrips, 441 piers, 2,558 ammunition magazines, 700 square blocks of warehouses, hospitals to serve 70,000 patients, tanks for the storage of 100,000,000 gallons of gasoline, and housing for 1,500,000 men. In construction and fighting operations, the Pacific Seabees suffered more than 200 combat deaths and earned more than 2,000 Purple Hearts. They served on four continents and on more than 300 islands.
Towards the end of the war, Wagner’s unit moved to the slightly larger island of Okinawa. The Seabees' task on Okinawa was truly immense. “They said there were 49 or 50 battalions of Seabees on Okinawa,” Wagner recalled. “We put up roads on that little island. They had coral pits — it was kind of whitish coral — and they’d put that on the road, and go over it with big V-8’s and heavy rollers, and when they got done, it was just like blacktop, only it was white.”
While on Okinawa, Wagner’s unit also survived a typhoon. “They told us to secure our tents. The next day, ninety percent of the tents were blown down,” he said. “But not mine.” Each 16 foot by 16 foot tent housed four men. “Three of the fellas didn’t want to stay in that tent during the night.” But Wagner had used his construction skills to reinforce his tent during the storm, and came out of it unscathed. “That typhoon was something else,” he said.
On the agrarian island of Okinawa, whose physical facilities a fierce bombardment had all but destroyed, Seabees built ocean ports, a grid of roads, bomber and fighter fields, a seaplane base, quonset villages, Air Force ready rooms, tank farms, storage dumps, hospitals, and ship repair facilities.
Nearly 55,000 Seabees, organized into four brigades, participated in Okinawa construction operations. By the beginning of August 1945, sufficient facilities, supplies, and manpower were at hand to mount an invasion of the Japanese home islands.
It was an invasion that, fortunately, would never come. On Aug. 10, 1945, after the invasion of Manchuria by the Soviet Union and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan's leaders at the Imperial conference decided, in principle, to accept the uncompromising terms the Allies had set down for ending the war in the Potsdam Declaration.
Wagner returned to Manistee in December of 1945 and resumed his normal life, reunited with his wife after a two-year hiatus, and raised his four children.
When asked whether he enjoyed his service, he says jokingly what many other fighting men of the era say, “Did I like it? I had to like it.” Like 16 million other American men and women, he simply did what he had to do.