After weeks of secrecy, Navy officials announced Friday that 1,800 Seabees from Port Hueneme are being deployed to Saudi Arabia to build facilities for the buildup of U.S. forces.
So far, Navy officials said, one Port Hueneme-based air detachment of 90 men has arrived in Saudi Arabia. Another air detachment of 90 men and 30 pieces of large construction equipment is in the process of being loaded on 20 C-141 Starlifter cargo planes in Puerto Rico, destined for the Middle East.
A third air detachment will leave Guam shortly, said Capt. R.J. Pearson III, commanding officer of the Naval Construction Battalion Center at Port Hueneme. The air detachments act as an advance party for the 1,500 or so Seabees who will follow within the next 60 days, he said.
"Right now we have decided to move most of the equipment by sea," Pearson said. He indicated a cargo ship will arrive in Port Hueneme within the next few days. "There is no reason to send the rest of the units until their equipment gets there."
Mobilization of three of the four 600-man Naval Mobile Construction Battalions from Port Hueneme is the largest deployment of Seabees since the Vietnam War. A fourth battalion is scheduled to depart from the nation's other Seabee center in Gulfport, Miss.
The Seabees are a uniformed force of civil engineers and construction tradesmen with a rich tradition of building military bases from scratch within a matter of weeks.
Navy officials decline to specify the Seabees' mission in Saudi Arabia. Officials said they are prepared for a wide range of construction tasks, including building or repairing airstrips, installing underground fuel tanks and making berths for ships.
Pearson said the Seabees are also prepared to fight if necessary. In addition to routine military gear, each member of the all-male mobile battalions is equipped with a gas mask and special suit to resist chemical warfare.
"We are prepared to defend ourselves and our job sites," Pearson said.
Officials invited representatives of more than two dozen newspapers, television and radio stations onto the base to make the announcement.
During most of the two-hour tour, Navy officials ferried journalists in two buses around the base, stopping at various points to allow photographers and television camera operators a chance to film uniformed Seabees trying on gas masks, filing into a bus, driving earthmoving equipment and stacking materiel.
Pearson said he sympathized with those frustrated by the Navy's refusal to disclose the Seabees' plans.
"Traditionally, it has been our policy not to comment on troop movements," he said. "We were telling the wives as little as possible. They had to speculate on what was happening, and that was unfortunate because they were sometimes wrong."
Of the three Port Hueneme-based battalions being deployed, only Naval Construction Battalion 5 is currently stationed on the base surrounded by Oxnard. Its advance team, a 90-man air detachment, is already in Saudi Arabia, and a ship to carry its heavy equipment is expected any day.
Naval Construction Battalion 4, which is temporarily stationed in Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, is currently moving its advance team by air cargo planes to the Middle East. Navy officials said they didn't know when a ship will move the rest of the battalion's equipment.
The Naval Construction Battalion 40, temporarily stationed in Guam, will be sending its 90-man advance team to Saudi Arabia shortly, officials said. Battalion 40 is also in the process of loading a ship with its heavy equipment needed by the rest of the battalion.
Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 3, which recently returned from a seven-month tour in Rota, Spain, will remain at Port Hueneme for now, officials said.
Port Hueneme also has a Navy Reserve unit that makes up one Seabee battalion. Pearson said some of its members have been activated, but declined to give further details.