Willing hearts and skillful hands
Despite funding woes, Seabee Museum honors 70 years of service
By Joan Trossman Bien 09/06/2012
“We build. We fight.” The motto of the U.S. Navy Construction Battalion (CB), known as the Seabees, is evident throughout the new Seabee museum in Port Hueneme. The modern, airy structure is the perfect venue for Seabee memorabilia going back 70 years.
That was the time when the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 brought home the urgent need for massive military construction projects. By 1942, the Seabees had been formed and spread out to both the European and Asian theaters of war. There was no time to train young recruits. Instead, a designated force was formed that could build airstrips, military bases, roads, hospitals and everything else that supports a fighting force. The need for experienced engineers and construction workers skewed the average age of the original Seabees to 37.
As World War II wore on, the ranks of the Seabees grew to more than 325,000. They built whatever was needed by the military on six continents, all while fighting the enemy. Much of the work was concentrated in the Pacific, where Seabees made some 300 islands usable for military purposes.
The Seabees have literally, paved the way for the military in every conflict since World War II. From simple projects like look-out towers to the impossible feat of carving roads into mountains, Seabees were the double-edged swords that served their fellow soldiers, sailors and Marines.
The building that houses the museum is impressive despite the paucity of exhibits. Souvenirs from every war were carried back to the States, but most Seabees chose not to bother with the paperwork, so the eclectic collection has become a museum’s bounty for the public to see.
On a recent Sunday, there were just a few families touring the museum. Steve Topping of Santa Paula was a World War II vet, who had been in the Navy. He has been tracking the museum’s progress since it opened to the public last year.
“I was stationed here in 1945 for a little while, before going over to Guam,” Topping said. “We were going to operate the landing craft for the invasion of Japan. Fortunately, while I was stationed on Guam, the atomic bombs were dropped and I was able to come home.”
Another Navy veteran from World War II, Joe Grossman, had brought along some of his family. The Florida resident had driven down from a family event in Santa Barbara just to see the new museum. Grossman said his role in the Navy was as an armed guard. “We were trained here as gunners for merchant ships.”
PHOTO BY MATTHEW HILL
Grossman was disappointed that the museum was taking so long to be completed and confused about the museum’s funding. “This should have been done five years ago,” he said. Director of the Seabee Museum Lara Godbille said even she has been confused about how the museum is paying for itself.
“We actually have two funding sources,” she said. “The museum itself is owned and operated by the Navy. In addition to that, we have a nonprofit organization headquartered in Gulfport, Miss.”
But between the initial plans made years ago and the realities of today, the funding did not live up to expectations. At the time the project was started, the foundation was expected to be doing much better, with a $9 million exhibit plan, Godbille explained. “However, they do not have those funds available at this time. So we’re having to open the exhibits on the Navy’s operating budget. We didn’t budget for that because we were told that the foundation was going to fund that.”
Godbille said the museum will not be completed until the end of 2013. About one-third of the displays are finished and the remainder are being stored in a climate-controlled warehouse.
Among the memorable exhibits is the rifle that belonged to Saddam Hussein’s son Uday, portions of which are made of gold.
A larger exhibit, this one from the Cold War era, is the actual control panel that once ran a nuclear power plant in Antarctica. Hovering above the panel is a portion of the original geodesic dome roof from the Seabee Antarctica station. The plant was built by the Seabees in 1962, and it produced power for 10 years, after which it was dismantled.
If you are looking for a favorite exhibit from the old museum, Godbille said that between now and late next year, displays will continue to be added regularly.
The United States Navy Seabee Museum is located at 1001 Addor St., Port Hueneme. Hours are Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sunday, noon-4 p.m. Admission and parking are free.