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Predictions of Seabee Base's Demise Miss on All Counts

January 05, 1989|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

Reports of the death of the Seabee base in Port Hueneme turned out to be greatly exaggerated.

So too were the obituaries of dozens of other bases that were not targeted for closure on the Pentagon's long-awaited "hit list" last week, despite published reports of their imminent demise.

For instance, an Oct. 24 article in U.S. News & World Report sent Ventura County reeling with rumors that the Naval Construction Battalion Center might be shut down.

Not only was the base spared, but of the 50 other military facilities mentioned as potential targets in the article, only nine were actually recommended for closure.

Port Hueneme's good fortune did not surprise Capt. Brian J. O'Connell, commanding officer of the Naval Construction Battalion Center, who was confident that any talk of the Seabee base's closure was mere conjecture.

"We felt secure that we were needed," O'Connell said. "But it's still nice for the peace of mind of our employees to put this all behind them."

Months of Speculation

After months of speculation, the 12-member Commission on Base Realignment and Closure recommended last Thursday that Congress shut down 86 U.S. military bases and partly close or realign 59 others. The bipartisan commission, formed to rid the military of obsolete or duplicative facilities, estimated that the savings would be $5.6 billion over 20 years.

Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci has until Jan. 15 to reject or accept the list. If approved by Congress, the closures could begin by 1990.

Rumors that the Seabee base might be a target surfaced after the U.S. News & World Report article included the facility on a list of bases that officials "are likely to focus on . . . as potential targets."

The text of the three-page story did not mention the Seabee base, and no attribution was given for the source of the list. The reporter, Robert Kaylor, could not be reached for comment this week.

The only bases mentioned in the magazine to end up on the Pentagon's list were Mather Air Force Base, Calif.; Pease Air Force Base, N.H.; Ft. Dix Army Basic Training Center, N.J.; Jefferson Proving Ground, Ind.; Ft. Wingate Depot, N.M.; Ft. Douglas, Utah; Ft. Sheridan, Ill.; the Army Material Technology Laboratory, Mass., and the proposed naval station at Hunters Point in San Francisco.

Speculation was fueled shortly after the article appeared when the Navy Times, an independent naval publication, also listed the Seabee base as a possible target.

A Los Angeles Times list of possible closure candidates in California also proved wide of the mark. Of 14 bases considered likely targets for closure or reduction, only two were on the Pentagon list. The Times listed the Naval Hospital at Port Hueneme, which also was not on he list.

5,000 Civilian Employees

O'Connell, however, said the Seabee base, which is headquarters for 5,000 civilian employees and 4,600 military personnel, plays a key role in maintaining U.S. strategic forces overseas.

This year, for instance, it will be home base for 600 Seabees, who will venture to military installations in the South Pacific to build and repair a wide range of Navy facilities. The 1,600-acre base is also home to the Seabee College, where enlisted men can take nine- to 12-week courses in construction trades.

The base, which shipped out more supplies than any other U.S. port during World War II, serves as headquarters for an underwater construction team of 42 divers who repair seafront facilities, as well as underwater cables and pipelines.

In addition, Operation Deep Freeze has been located at the base since 1975. Each fall, about 2,000 personnel and 2 million tons of cargo are shipped from Port Hueneme to Antarctica, where they join with New Zealand forces to conduct research in the coldest and driest place on Earth.

Established in 1942, the base was popularized by the John Wayne movie, "The Fighting Seabees." It is estimated to pump more than $1.2 billion a year into the local economy.

"We are active," O'Connell said. "We are ready to mobilize if there is an overseas conflict that requires construction."

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