The Seabees of Iwo Jima
Sixty nine years later, the battle is over, but the fight for recognition continues
By Chris O'Neal 02/13/2014
Feb. 19, 1945.
A collaboration of 74,000 U.S. Marines, Navy, Army and Coastguard stormed the beaches of the Japanese island of Iwo Jima in an attempt to overtake it for use during World War II. Of those 70,000, 1,100 were from the 133rd U.S. Naval Construction Battalion (CB), also known as the Seabees.
The 133rd division of the Navy Seabees arrived in Port Hueneme’s Camp Rousseau from Rhode Island after a brief stint in Mississippi. From there, after basic training and preparation, the men traveled to San Pedro and departed to Hawaii, where they underwent training and were integrated into the Marines, attached to the Fourth Marine Division, Pioneer Battalion. The 133rd unit became one with its Marine counterpart, taking on the uniform and otherwise becoming indistinguishable.
Its primary mission was to construct landing strips for the bombers returning from missions over the Japanese mainland, which, prior to the taking of Iwo Jima, were experiencing high casualties.
Kenneth Bingham is an amateur historian and has contributed to the Civil Engineer Corps/Seabee Historical Foundation, having written several books on the history of the Seabees.
The average age of a Navy Seabee was 37. Pictured here, Seabee John M. Smith (left) with his son, John Jr. of the Fifth Marine Division. This picture captures the only known father and son meeting on Iwo Jima. John Jr. was killed in action a few days later.
“Given that Iwo Jima is only five miles by three miles, everything was the front line,” said Bingham.
In his latest book, Black Hell: The Story of the 133rd Navy Seabees at Iwo Jima, Bingham describes the first day of the assault.
The 133rd landed on Iwo Jima with the Marines at approximately 9:20 a.m., possibly the worst time to have done so. The Imperial Japanese commander at Iwo Jima, Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, had ordered his troops to withhold fire until the U.S. forces were most concentrated on the beach. The Japanese were willing to die defending the island, and were told by Kuribayashi that every soldier should kill 10 Americans before dying himself, according to Bingham. By the time the Seabees landed, a full-on assault was under way.
“It was horrendous being on the beach, it was the worst place to be. It would have been safer to move inland,” said Bingham.
Of all the U.S. servicemen who perished at Iwo Jima (a total of 6,821), the Seabees 133rd lost 42. The Imperial Army, however, lost nearly all troops on the island — of the 22,000, less than 1,000 survived.
The men of the 133rd, and the Seabees in general (13 battalions of which participated in the Battle of Iwo Jima), were largely older men. The average age of a Seabee was 37. The younger Marines had a popular saying, “Watch what you say to a Seabee, he could be your father,” said Bingham. Many of the Seabees had served in World War I and were recruited out of union halls as journeymen carpenters and builders.
Port Hueneme’s Naval Base, which the current Seabee battalions call home, was established in 1942 in order to assist the campaigns in the Pacific.
Now Bingham, along with several former and current members of the Navy Seabees and their advocates, are attempting to give the 133rd its due recognition for the efforts put forth on Iwo Jima in the form of a Presidential Unit Citation, an award given to units that have accomplished their missions under extremely difficult conditions.
The citation was given to the Fourth Marine Pioneer Battalion that the 133rd was attached to immediately following World War II, but requests for the same recognition for the 133rd have gone unanswered, despite a letter-writing campaign that reached President Barack Obama in 2012.
“There were three stipulations that they had to prove, and they proved every one of them,” said Bingham. “The PUC would give them honor.”
The three stipulations included proving that the 133rd had gone inland (some did, according to Bingham, but most didn’t; the Marine division, however, did not) and that the 133rd was not simply a support unit, but an assault unit. The last requirement was to have an on-site observer testify to the unit’s worthiness, and during an episode of War Stories with Oliver North, Col. Shelton Scales of the USMCR vouched for that.
“I feel very, very strongly about them getting this before all are gone,” said Col. Scales. “At least, let’s honor those who are left.”
Congresswoman Julia Brownley (CA-26) released a statement in support of the PUC.
“As a proud representative of Naval Base Ventura County, including Port Hueneme where the 133rd trained for a short time, I fully support these efforts to provide the 133rd with all due recognition,” said Brownley.
Of the 1,100 Seabees, Bingham believes that close to 50 remain. For Bingham, the recognition would cement in history the contribution the 133rd made to the war effort.
“The whole point of the island was the airstrips,” said Bingham. “That was the goal, and the Marines wrestled it from the Japanese so the Seabees could build up these places.”
A letter-writing campaign and an online petition is under way to give the 133rd its recognition as an integral part of the Battle for Iwo Jima.