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Iwo-Jima Seabees Stay Unsung!

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Iwo Jima Seabees Stay Unsung

 

Navy construction battalion units, whose main purpose was to unload supplies and build roads and airstrips, fought alongside combat troops storming the black sandy beaches of Iwo Jima. Now, some of the Seabee veterans think they deserved more recognition for what they did.

 

During this fierce assault on Iwo Jima in February 1945, Navy construction battalions (NCB's or Seabees) had two functions. To secure the beaches as the first assault troops went inland to engage the enemy and to unload supplies and provide runners to keep contact between the beach and the forward battle lines.

 

Four days after D-Day, the 133rd NCB inherited another job - repairing the newly won airfield that had been shattered and shellpocked by the battle that had swept across it.

 

I was the assistant company commander, Headquarters Company of this unit. The 133rd Companies A, B, and C and Company A of the 4th Marine Division Pioneer Battalion composed the shore party for the 23rd Regimental Combat Team. Company D of the 133rd NCB and Companies B and C of the 4th Pioneer Battalion composed the shore party for the 25th Regimental Combat Team. These two teams were the lead units for the assault troops of the 4th Marine Division.

 

Seabee staff correspondent Robert V, Evans outlined the activities of the 133rd NCB best:

 

Two battalions of the 41st Seabee Regiment at Iwo Jima - the 133rd NCB attached to the 4th Marine Division and the 31st NCB attached to the 5th Marine Division - hit the Iwo Jima beaches on the second wave of the initial assault, landing less than 60 minutes behind the assault wave made up of amphibious tanks and armored tractors. In the face of heavy fire from mortars already zeroed on beach positions, the Seabees unloaded cranes and bulldozers and Steel matting to be laid over the volcanic sand in which many vehicles were stuck almost at the water edge. The matting placed by the Seabees permitted medium tanks to enter into the battle, reinforcing the lightly-armored amphibious tractors which had taken the brunt of the first attack on enemy pill-boxes and strongholds, ordinarily the job of light and medium tanks.

 

With the entire surface of the rocky island ablaze with combat, the Seabees worked day and night to put the airfield into shape for U.S. planes. Japanese gunners, emplaced in caves that honeycombed the hills, laid down a heavy but intermittent fire on the field. Marine fliers started to use the Seabee-repaired southern airfield on 26 February, providing land-based air support for thee ground troops and a U.S. airfield less than 750 miles from Tokyo.

 

The second wave, including the Seabees, was permitted to land on the beach without strong opposition from enemy positions in the hills. The Japanese then unleashed heavy fire against the third and succeeding waves and concentrated on the beach positions.

 

Our ships and aircraft had pounded the volcanic Mt. Suribachi until no one could believe that anything or anyone was left alive. But the Japanese continued firing. The defenders in the mountainside caves resumed serving their mortars after we stopped. One Marine said that the mortars used against the Seabees and

 

Marines on the beach were the largest ever used against us. On many beaches, mortar fire pinned down the Seabees and Marines for as long as 12 hours straight.

 

The barren landscape provided little cover, and it was impossible to dig adequate foxholes. At Yellow Beach One, on the central portion of Iwo Jima's eastern coast, elements of the 133rd NCB were pinned down by mortar fire on D-Day from mid-morning until after sunset. Shellfire from 75-mm guns set up the ridge also rained down from several hundred yards away. In the shallow, crumbling foxholes, many men were wounded or killed. Unofficial reports said casualties were highest among members of the beach parties, who had to work without seeking cover.

 

Because only a few trucks were able to get ashore early, Seabees and Marines were forced to haul supplies by hand for two days under heavy enemy fire. Even some of the powerful bulldozers were unable to gain traction on the shifting volcanic sand. An earthen shelf slowed vehicles and made them easy targets for the artillerymen on the high ground. On D+3, a heavy rain affected our activities, but a large quantity of material had been unloaded already. Flares and searchlights from ships were used to prevent enemy infiltration during the night.

 

Headquarters Company of the 133rd NCB was assigned to provide a perimeter defense against a counterattack from the sea. The security unit consisted of two 30-man infantry platoons and two 4-man light machine gun sections. The Japanese did not attempt any counterattacks either from the sea or on the front lines in our area. Credit for the fact that security unit had only one man killed in action goes to the special training provided by a Gunnery Sergeant named Hickman of the 23rd Marines. When I realized that we were going to be involved in serious combat and that any advice from a combat veteran would be helpful, I asked my company commander to secure the services of a Marine to help train my security units. Sergeant Hickman held forth every afternoon from 13:00 to 16:00 for three weeks. After we landed, he emphasized, we should get away from the water's edge as quickly as possible and avoid seeking shelter in any shell holes or depressions because enemy gunners would no doubt be zeroed in on them already. It would be safer to lie on the open ground, he told us. This meant going beyond the first two terraces, inland about 250 yards from the beach. Unfortunately, one of my men in the machine-gun crew jumped into a 16-inch shell hole with other men, and all were killed by a mortar shell. I will always appreciate the help we received from Sergeant Hickman, the pride of Mississippi.

 

The Seabee companies were mainly involved in regular shore-parry duties, unloading landing craft at the water's edge and establishing and operating dumps of food, ammunition, fuel, and water. We also loaded the transport units for delivery to the troops at the front.

 

During the 26-day battle for Iwo Jima, elements of the 133rd NCB bulldozed debris on the beaches and made access roads. A vehicle maintenance group kept trucks, jeeps, tractors, and other equipment running. Surveyors and draftsmen were assigned intelligence tasks and kept daily maps and reports for the Marines.

 

Corpsmen and doctors worked with evacuation station personnel, and the medical units were hit hard, with one corpsman killed in action, one corpsman wounded in action, and one doctor missing in action. Two other doctors, the dentist, and the chaplain were wounded. All casualties except one were evacuated.

 

The 133rd NCB suffered 245 [370*] casualties - 3 officers and 39 enlisted men killed in action and 12 officers and 191 enlisted men wounded - the highest total of any Seabee unit in history. The totals exceeded the casualties of the 4th Marine Division Pioneer Battalion. The members of the 133rd NCB wore Marine uniforms, were subject to Marine regulations, and were active participants of the 4th Marine Division assault team and were not identified as part of a support group.

 

After Iwo Jima was declared secure, the 4th Marine Division returned to Maui, Hawaii, and the 133rd NCB, reduced by casualties to 75% of its full strength, remained on the island to help build B-29 airfields. The battalion worked two 12-hour shifts seven days a week and was subjected to occasional night air raid alerts, several attacks, and daytime sniper fire from enemy survivors still living in numerous tunnels and caves that remained intact after the battle.

 

The B-29 airfields on Iwo Jima saved the lives of more than 25,000 Army Air Corpsmen whose planes were so damaged from air raids over Japan that they never could have returned to their home bases on Guam and Tinian. This was some consolation for those of us who saw the sacrifices made by the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions and their attached units.

 

Since Marine veterans have said that Iwo Jima was the toughest battle they ever fought, it seems fitting and appropriate that the survivors of the 133rd NCB finally get their due.

 

 

 

WHAT ABOUT A PUC?

 

Veterans of the 133rd Naval Construction Battalion wonder why their unit was not awarded a Presidential Unit Citation (PUC) for the Iwo Jima campaign as part of the 4th Marine Division.

 

The Marine units of the 25th Regimental Combat Team (RCT) received the PUC. Company D of the 133rd NCB - part of the 25th RCT - did not. Company A of the 4th Pioneer Battalion in the 23rd RCT received the PUC. Headquarters Company and Companies A, B, and C of the 133rd NCB did not. The 4th Marine Division had only one Pioneer battalion - the 4th - which was assigned to the 25th RCT. Therefore, another Pioneer battalion was needed for the 23rd RCT.

 

According to veterans of the battalion, the 133rd NCB, with the 4th Pioneer Company A., satisfied that need. Official 4th Marine Division documents prove that the 133rd NCB was part of the assault units of the 4th Marine Division for the Iwo Jima campaign.

 

Did the 133rd NCB deserve a Presidential Unit Citation?

 

Commander Marra and his fellow Seabee veterans think

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The Fourth Marine Division was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for the Iwo-Jima Battle and the 133rd NCB was not although:

 

1. The 133rd NCB became an actual part of the 4th Marine Division on November 1, 1944, until March 1945. Wearing Marine uniforms and subject to Marine rules and regulations.

 

2. The 133rd was not a support unit, but was used as a Marine Pioneer Battalion during the battle.

 

3. The 133rd NCB and the Marine 4th Pioneer Battalion both became shore parties for the 23rd and 25th Regimental Combat Teams of the 4th Marine Division for the assault phase on Iwo-Jima. Official Battle Plans on record show this.

 

4. The entire 133rd landed with the first waves and suffered 40% percent casualties - (370), higher than any Seabee Battalion in history.

 

5. The 133rd's casualties exceeded the casualties of the Marine 4th Pioneer Battalion on the adjoining beaches. The 4th Pioneers were awarded the citation-the 133rd was not.

 

There were six Seabee Battalions that received the PUC during WWII. All of them had far less casualties than the 133rd. The 133rd NCB wore its uniform proudly as Navy, and wore its uniform proudly as Marines. They served them both with great distinction. They earned and deserve the recognition that is still not theirs.

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Amen to that. I have heard similar stories such as these and I have to say that I too think that these men deserve the recognition that they rightly deserve. Unfortunately for most, they will not get to see the honor bestowed if it is awarded, but their descendants will gladly accept the recognition for their loved ones long departed from this earth.

 

I am so glad that you took the time to post this here. People need to be aware of what these men went through. Unfortunately their story is just one of many, but I feel it is never too late to give credit, where credit is due.

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The March 12th Seabee episode of "Warstories" with Oliver North featured the "Iwo-Jima" "Bees" The Navy Awards Department is now looking into this, to see if the 133rd "May" be eligible for the upgrade!

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Frank Riefle, 36, Seaman First Class, never expected to be on the front lines the first night on Iwo-Jima. Riefle armed with a "BAR" was a member of a squad of Seabees and Marines who were to furnish a perimeter guard around the shore-party. He recalls: When our boat hit the beach, I made a dive for the sand. I had just gotten down flat when my ring was knocked off the middle finger of my right hand by a piece of shrapnel. I was only scratched, men were being hit all around me. Then two other Seabee riflemen and I were odered to move up away from the beach and fire on some snipers. We moved 50 yards and some shells fell between us and the rest of the shore-party. We went forward again to keep from being hit, and were forced to keep going as the barrage moved up behind us. By nightfall on D-Day, we were on the front lines. During the night, Riefle made two trips back to the beach helping wounded men. The next day he and the other Seabees made their way back to the shore-party, which was unloading supplies on the beach. but not before - says Riefle he emptied a few more clips at the Japanese

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I signed the petition today. Best of luck to you and everyone involved in this drive. :pdt34:

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