The Seabees wrought construction miracles from Omaha Beach to Okinawa.

By Michael D. Hull

They built causeways and piers, blew up wrecked landing craft, laid roads and manned ferries. They also built airfields and bridges and constructed ammunition dumps, tank farms, warehouses and barracks–often under enemy fire. And on more than one occasion they fought as infantrymen.

“Can Do!” was the motto of the Navy’s legendary Seabees–construction battalions–during World War II, and no job was too big or too dangerous for them. Their collective dedication, resourcefulness and heroism made a significant contribution to the Allied victory. From Guadalcanal to Anzio, from Normandy to Okinawa, they took part in most major operations in several theaters and racked up a host of construction miracles.

The praises of the Seabees are sung in a lively and entertaining manner in From Omaha to Okinawa (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 1999, $17.95), by historian William Bradford Huie. Describing Seabee operations from Omaha Beach to the Okinawa invasion, this is a sequel to Huie’s earlier Can Do! The Story of the Seabees. His latest book is a page turner, illuminating a chapter of World War II that has been largely overlooked–despite a romanticized Hollywood melodrama, The Fighting Seabees, starring John Wayne. The narrative is high-spirited yet factual and is laced with humor and irony. No one is better qualified than Huie to write the definitive chronicle of the Seabees; he started interviewing them in the Pacific in 1944.

While Guadalcanal was the centerpiece of Huie’s first volume, the main events in this book are the invasions of Normandy and Iwo Jima. Although vastly different in scale, each was noteworthy for the ferocity of the fighting and the technical achievements of the Seabees in surmounting daunting natural obstacles. At Normandy on June 6, 1944, Seabees manned Rhino ferries that delivered 1,500 vehicles, including Sherman tanks, trucks and jeeps, to Omaha Beach early during the invasion effort. At the first airstrip seized on Iwo Jima in February 1945, men of the 31st Seabee Battalion displayed heroism that stunned the normally imperturbable Marines. While Japanese snipers fired at them, the Seabees lined up at 2-foot intervals and crawled the length of the runway, picking up bits of shrapnel. They took that risk because, as Huie explains, “The smallest sliver of shrapnel can explode a plane’s tire and wreck it.”

What is perhaps most fascinating about From Omaha to Okinawa, however, are the astounding statistics that Huie chronicles. On Guam, the Seabees moved 18 million cubic yards of earth, constructed a refrigeration system of 500,000 cubic feet and developed a fresh-water system that could pump nine million gallons a day. They laid 103 miles of blacktop highway and 243 miles of coral-surfaced road. On Tinian, 10,000 Seabees built two great airfields for Boeing B-29 heavy bombers. In the process of constructing these airfields, the Seabees hauled enough coral to build five Boulder Dams. Huie compares the work on Tinian to the construction of the Panama Canal, and that on Saipan to the building of the Pyramids.

As a record of American engineering and construction genius under fire, this book is rousing, revealing and riveting.