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EVENTS : 'SEABEE DAY '90' : Build and Fight : The public is invited to tour the Navy Construction Battalion's 1,600-acre Port Hueneme base on Saturday.

June 07, 1990|DAVID LUSTIG

As a major military facility, Port Hueneme is unusual.

There are no squadrons of jet fighters or lumbering cargo aircraft stationed here and the adjacent harbor is devoid of battleships and frigates that call it home. Yet without Port Hueneme, the Navy would be hard-pressed to fulfill its worldwide commitments.

So then just what is behind those guarded gates? Well, Saturday, the public is invited to take a look.

What you'll find are the Seabees, the Navy's seagoing civil engineers who eschew airplanes and guns for bulldozers and construction cranes.

True to their motto, "We Build, We Fight," the four Seabee battalions can go anywhere in the world on almost a moment's notice to help with disaster relief or civic action work with one hand, while building new military bases in jungles and digging out deep water harbors with the other.

But if you're thinking that Saturday's event, dubbed "Seabee Day '90," is going to be nothing more than displays of rock crushers, dredgers and drilling equipment, Port Hueneme representative Kassandra Gale said you have nothing to worry about.

On the schedule is a tour of the rapid deployment aircraft repair ship USS Curtiss, a parade, food, 5K and 7-mile runs, carnival games, the Marine Corps Band, a USO show and an aerial demonstration by the Leapfrogs, the Navy's official parachute team. And yes, since this is a Seabee base, there will be plenty of demonstrations of what olive-drab bulldozers, road graders and cranes can do.

With the advent of World War II, the Navy needed a large West Coast depot whose primary function was to act as a staging yard for the tons of military equipment and raw material that had to be shipped overseas. Chosen for its central geographical location relative to the many military bases that had sprung up throughout California and Arizona, the flow of men and supplies at Port Hueneme has grown or decreased ever since, depending on the state of the world.

Pared down to a skeleton of itself after the cessation of hostilities in 1945, the base began building up again during the Korean conflict in the early 1950s and gained prominence as one of the primary Navy deployment ports during the Vietnam War.

And throughout its illustrious career, the base has seen its share of civilians. Over a 48-year career, the facility has been home to thousands of civil service employees.

But it may be that a visit to the 1,600-acre facility is not in the cards for Saturday. If that's the case, all is not lost. The on-base Seabee museum is open to the public almost every day of the year.

Displayed under one roof are artifacts and memorabilia depicting the work of the Seabees from their birth in January, 1942, through Korea, Vietnam and into the present.

Gale said that while the 29,000-square-foot museum is steeped in military history, it also has separate wings devoted to the cultures of the many countries to which Seabees have been sent. For example, there is the doll display.

"Whenever anyone asks where the Seabees have served, I tell them to look at the doll collection," said base museum director and former Seabee Yung (Hark) Ketels as he pointed to the dozens of figurines protected by glass cases. "They represent every country we've been to." For Seabees at Port Hueneme, he said, that means practically every country in the world.

At the end of World War II, most of the Seabees who had fought in the Pacific came through the base on their way home, Ketels said. And with them came tons of souvenirs and mementos, most of which were left behind at the base. By 1946, with a warehouse overflowing with abandoned trinkets, a decision was made to put the most interesting material on display.

There is also a special section dedicated to the memory of actor John Wayne.

During the initial years of World War II, Ketels said, it was tough getting enough volunteers for units like the Seabees. In 1944 Wayne, Susan Hayward and Dennis O'Keefe made the movie "The Fighting Seabees."

"Everyone wanted to be a flyer, a paratrooper or in the Marines," Ketels said. "After that picture came out, we had a lot of men join the Seabees."

"The Fighting Seabees" was a big draw, but Ketels remembered conditions as being a bit tougher than what was on screen. There was the time, in the early '50s, when he was part of a battalion building a naval air station in the Philippines.

"We were living in tents in the jungle," he said, "and boa constrictors and monkeys kept on trying to keep us company." That's when Ketels learned that the only way to get a good night's sleep was to keep an iguana for a pet. "At night the iguana would be tethered inside the tent and catch bugs and mosquitoes as well as keep the monkeys and snakes out."

Then there is the issue of the name. Contrary to the movie, which showed a military officer creating the word Seabee from C-onstruction B-attalion, the unit got its distinctive name and bee logo from Frank J. Lafrate, a civilian file clerk working for the Navy in Rhode Island in 1942.

After playing around with a beaver for a mascot, he finally came up with the bee carrying tools and a machine gun. The name, quite simply, came from combining the thought of men going to "sea" with a "bee."

* THE DETAILS: Seabee Day 1990 Schedule of Events includes:

* 8 a.m. 5K Fun Run and 7-Mile Tour Run

* 11 a.m. Seabee Parade and Navy Leapfrog Parachute Team demonstration

* Noon to 5 p.m. Bus tours, ship tour, Seabee training demonstrations, heavy equipment show, food booths, carnival games, the Marine Corps Band, USO Show with singers, skits and comedians.

For more information, contact the Public Affairs Office at 805-982-4493.

The Museum is open Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturdays 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sundays 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. For more information contact the Public Affairs Office.

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