In the islands of the South Pacific, they waded ashore from LST landing craft just behind the Marines and the infantry and hacked their way through dense jungles, fighting off fierce red ants and snakes to clear space and build camps and airfields and docks to support American backup forces and provide for the unloading of supplies and equipment.
They blasted out roads and hung utility lines, built living spaces, offices, warehouses, shops, chow halls, chapels – even theaters and film booths and softball fields.
The earliest Seabees were recruited from the civilian construction trades and were placed under the leadership of the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps. Because of the emphasis on experience and skill rather than physical standards, the average age of Seabees during the early days of the war was 37.
More than 325,000 men served with the Seabees in World War II, fighting and building on six continents and more than 300 islands.
They made it possible for fighting men – though thousands of miles from home in a land of grass huts and palm trees and an enemy determined to kill them – to be drawn together in a fraternity, forming friendships and alliances that made them as close as brothers.
Larry Dale McDaniel’s father, Kenneth Arthur McDaniel, was one of them. Larry was less than a year old when the Navy called his father in March 1944 at age 28 from their home on Fifth Street in Portsmouth, and he chose the Seabees.
Larry has a photo of his father in his Navy uniform while home on leave, a shot of him and a couple of buddies drinking beer in some jungle port, the Log Book of the 30th United States Navy Construction Battalion telling him his father served with the battalion in places like Leyte Gulf and the Palau Islands.
He knows his father’s chief job with the Seabees was that of a crane operator, and that he was awarded the Asiatic Pacific Ribbon, the Philippine Liberation Ribbon, the World War II Victory Medal, and the American Theater Ribbon.
He knows he was making $153.04 a month, which he sent home, and that he received $100 in mustering out pay when he was discharged from the military on Nov. 24, 1945. He still wasn’t old enough to remember his father coming home and going back to his civilian job with the Bartlett Tree Experts Company.
Nor was he quite old enough to remember that day on May 8, 1947, when his father fell from a tree, fractured his skull, and died.
McDaniel, 65, living today in Rubyville with his wife, Mary, a nursing supervisor with 39 years’ service at Southern Ohio Medical Center, tears up as he remembers the father he never knew.
“He had just bought a place on Third Street and was ready to settle in and care for his family,” he said.
Years after his father’s death, with the United States involved in another war in a distant land, a 20-year-old Larry McDaniel told the Navy recruiter that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps
“I told the recruiter that if I couldn’t get the Seabees, then I wasn’t going,” he said. “He told me he couldn’t guarantee it because the Seabees were pretty well full at the time. But they found me a slot, and it wasn’t long before I was headed for Vietnam.”
The plane that took him there from the West Coast landed briefly in Hawaii, Midway, Guam – places where his father had been 20 years before.
“I was in four years and spent 13 months of it, in 1966 and 1967, in Vietnam. I was a demolition man, blasting out the side of a mountain to build a port,” McDaniel said. “I had bullets whining over my head at times, but I never carried a gun.”
Seabees served in Vietnam from 1954 to 1972. By 1962 they were building camps for U.S. Special Forces.
In June of 1965, construction mechanic 3rd Class Marvin Shields died while fighting with U.S. forces in the Battle of Dong X0AI. Posthumously, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the only Seabee ever to be so honored.
During his stay in Vietnam, Larry McDaniel helped to build schools and improve the roads that served the Vietnamese people.
“We would put down gravel on the roads and the people would haul it off in wheelbarrows for their own walkways, even to spread on the floors of their houses,” he said.
The McDaniel family, originally from the Rushtown and the Nauvoo area, has been a military family. In addition to Kenneth serving with the Seabees in World War II and Larry with the Seabees in Vietnam, his older brother, Bob McDaniel, deceased, served in the U.S. Navy; a half-brother, Don Sloas, served in the U.S. Air Force after Vietnam; and a cousin, the late Oscar Johnson, was in the Army during World War II, in Europe, serving mainly as a company driver running orders and officers back and forth across Germany and France. Johnson was five years younger than Kenneth McDaniel and went into the military two years earlier, being drafted into the Army in 1942 while living in the same area of Fifth Street as Kenneth McDaniel did.
Larry McDaniel has among the military paraphernalia and papers he has saved from the careers of the five military men in the family a stack of letters Johnson wrote home to his mother, Mrs. Anna Johnson. Johnson could never tell his mother much about what was going on with the war in Europe, since letters written home by GIs were carefully edited by the brass. He apparently was in some major battles along the way as his service record shows him as the recipient of a number of medals and awards, including three Bronze Stars.
“He told me after the war that everyone wanted to get medals because they helped you to accumulate points that would get you discharged earlier,” McDaniel said.
He wishes he could have located some letters from his father.
“But I guess I was luckier than some little boys whose fathers never came home from World War II, and who are buried somewhere in the land where they fought and died,” he said.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.