Question: Have you ever heard of a Seabee?
If not, then take some time soon to visit Port Hueneme’s U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, either online or in person, and help celebrate their 75th anniversary. Two new exhibits and a variety of activities have been rolled out this year in honor of the Naval Construction Battalion, making 2017 the perfect time to explore this important arm of the military.
Seabees have a long history of wartime expertise, from Iwo Jima to the McMurdo Base in Antarctica to the Vietnam and Gulf Wars. In addition, they are active across the globe in providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. They build wells and hospitals in Africa. When hurricanes and earthquakes strike, there’s a good chance Seabees will be on site helping with recovery and reconstruction.
All this history is on display at the museum located at Naval Base Ventura County (NBVC). Best of all, you can walk through anytime the museum is open . . . for free.
As Jose Rivera, the museum’s education specialist and public affairs officer, likes to say: “If you’ve paid your taxes, you’ve paid your entrance fee.”
The Seabees were founded in January 1942 at the Naval Air Station at Quonset Point in Rhode Island. Admiral Ben Morell folded the old Naval Civil Engineering Corps (CEC) into what became known as “construction battalions.” Seabee bases were established along U.S eastern, southern and western coasts. In Port Hueneme, the original Seabee base was known as Camp Rousseau.
Seabees are hard to classify within the U.S. military structure. Rivera sums it up this way: “Early on, they were embedded in the Marine Corps to learn fighting skills, much like the Navy corpsmen are embedded in the Marine Corps. Then they separated from the Marine Corps because so many of them enlisted due to the great need for manpower during World War II.”
Today a Seabee is a U.S. Navy sailor trained in civilian skills such as construction, engineering, steel working, electrical, utilities, mechanics and equipment operators. Their insignia, a bee with a Navy Dixie-Cup hat, has the Civil Engineering Corps logo on its uniform. The bee also holds a hammer, a wrench and a machine gun.
The fighting bee, nicknamed Sean, was originally created in 1942 by Frank Iafrate while he was stationed at Quonset Point. Ensign Robert D. Woodward coined the name “Seabee” from the acronym for CB (construction battalion).
“Bees are very industrious and they have a stinger,” said Rivera, “so they’re very good defenders as well.”
The original Seabee museum was founded in 1947 and filled with an assortment of World War II memorabilia. It had been located inside a Quonset hut at NBVC since 1956. By 2002, the structure was badly deteriorated. “The old Quonset hut was leaking, there was no environmental control, and there was no security control,” said Lara Godbille, the museum’s director.
Originally, the Navy had planned to retrofit the building, but the hut itself was hard to adapt to a lowered ceiling. Then another event intervened: 9/11.
“When 9/11 happened, we realized very quickly that there was no way we were going to be able to get people back on base,” said Godbille.
Instead, the CEC/Seabee Historical Foundation asked the Navy to let it use the base property located by the fence facing Ventura Road and 12th Avenue. The foundation proposed that the actual fence line be moved behind the museum. So, while the museum continued to sit on federal property, it would remain open to the public outside the base.
Permission was granted and fundraising began in earnest in 2002. In 2008, the foundation gifted $12 million to the Navy. The Navy contracted with RQ Construction out of Carlsbad, California, to build the museum. Ground was broken in March 2009 and construction was completed by October 2010.
While the museum exterior looks clean and simple, there is plenty of room inside for exhibition space. Using archival material that spans the Seabees’ history, you can find anything from an old cable-drive bulldozer (the museum was built around it) to the original panel for the nuclear power plant built by the Seabees at McMurdo Station in Antarctica.
You can also find what’s known as “trench art” done by sailors who were captured during wartime. This includes paintings and arts made from materials ranging from natural shells to gun shells.
Another notable piece of art is the Davisville stained glass window retrieved from Davisville, Rhode Island, the original home of the Seabees. When the base closed in 1994, the window was moved to the museum at NBVC.
A piece of Ventura history has been restored as well: the original marquee for the Mayfair Theater, once located in Downtown Ventura. The theater burned down in 2000. In 2013, some retired Seabees decided they could use the marquee for the new museum.
“They put it on a truck and moved it to a farm in Santa Paula,” Rivera explained. “The active-duty Seabees worked on the sheet metal and metal framing. Then it was brought to a sign man in Ventura. Dave’s Signs did the painting and redid the neon.”
In celebration of its 75th anniversary, the museum has also added new galleries — Seabees in the Pacific Theater During World War II and Seabees in the Cold War — as well as a youth-oriented STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Center. Several upcoming activities will continue the anniversary festivities. On Thursday, March 2, the museum will stay open after hours for a special behind-the-scenes tour, and Family Day will be on Saturday, March 4. The museum covers the entire history of the Seabees, and these events are an excellent way to take in the extensive naval history on display. “It’s the second-oldest museum in the Navy,” said Rivera. “The only museum older than ours is the Naval Museum at the Naval Academy.”
Rivera shares a joke that reflects the life of a Seabee: “An old sailor told me that a Seabee is a sailor in a Marine Corps uniform doing a civilian job with WPA [Work Projects Administration] wages.”
Good line. It says a lot about what it took to build this museum. Hard work. Common sense. Determination. From an old Quonset hut to a professional showcase, the foundation took on a daunting task and got the job done. As the Seabees always say: Can do.
The U.S. Navy Seabee Museum is located at 3201 N. Ventura Road, Port Hueneme. For hours, schedules and more information, call 982-5165 or visit www.history.navy.mil/content/history/museums/seabee.html.