Burton on the Bay
By Bill Burton
We Did It
We dozen old men helped win World War II
Motto of the Seabees of the U.S. Navy.
Around the table with a glass gallon jug with most of the red Paisano wine already poured and the clock on the wall closing in on midnight, 11 old men a dozen if one includes this writer reminisced. The Can Do days are pretty much over; chitchat centered on what they had done.
Seated along the walls were a dozen or more wives and family of the men. Like their men, they realized this would be the last time many of them would see each other. A string of 30 years was coming to an end.
“Thirty years ago, there would have been a lot more empty jugs on the table,” said Bill Sthardedeck, 79, of Port Clinton, Ohio, as he raised his glass. A few of his former shipmates wistfully nodded in agreement. Age has done where the enemy failed.
In 1976, more than 150 Seabees, mostly of middle age, assembled for the first reunion of the 137th and 139th Battalions, which had gone ashore at Okinawa in ’45 as the Marines were mopping up the last of the Emperor’s forces.
Seabee veterans Steve Lazorchak, Bill Sthardedeck and Otis Morrow.
Missourian Bill Sass recalled he was more frightened by his days at sea than by the enemy, some of whom were still hiding in caves and tunnels. “There were welds a foot wide in the middle of the troop ship,” he said. “ I thought they had put us on an old tub that would break apart. I’d have felt better if I had known that’s how they built the transports, in separate sections, then welded them together.”
Sass recalled he had claimed a top bunk, with five below him, because no one wants to be vulnerable with seasick shipmates above.
“We went ashore with one meal, a peanut butter sandwich, and didn’t know when we’d eat next,” said Sass who was quickly reminded it was better than the Spam, dried eggs and Vienna sausages the Marines dished out once ashore. But once the Can Do boys (most were 18 or 19 at the time) landed, they proved true to their motto. They spread the greatest table in the military.
So good did they eat in their improvised facilities that cook Jack Tibbals of Milwaukee, recalled that being truckers, his comrades were able to “acquire” all kinds of food and equipment. Their chow lines had many more men in them than the number of Seabees. Marines, officers and everyone else heard the news of steaks and real sugar at the 137th and 139th.
Pennsylvanian Joe Milewski almost missed it all. He tried to enlist; was told his sugar count was high so the Navy wouldn’t take him. When he later injured his hand, the attending doctor asked why he wasn’t in the military. When he said his sugar count was too high, the doctor checked and told him it wasn’t. He immediately signed up.
For the final reunion, he brought a scrapbook with a copy of the Seabee Daily Okinowan newssheet of Feb. 1, 1945, reporting that cigarettes were to be rationed. Henceforth, chits would be needed to light up.
Milewski joined the reserve when he got home, married, had a daughter and took over a small store. Then he was recalled in the Korean War.
“They needed men with my experience, they told me. I had to close the store, sell all the goods, and for a year I was a barber!”
The dean of the crew at the hospitality room at the Sheraton at Annapolis was Steve Lazorchak of Toms River, New Jersey, who at 92 brags he can still fit in his chief petty officer’s uniform. He remembers the Welcome, the Coast Guard is Here sign when he went on a mission that found the bodies of seven pilots buried in shallow graves. All were beheaded.
Lazorchak was discharged when the war ended, but later he signed up again to spend a total of 35 years with the Seabees, of which he’s quite proud. Once, in the Okinawa days when units were reshuffling, he got mixed up with another unit on a ship and was told he was reassigned. He threatened, “lower the gangplank, or I’m going to jump overboard.”
Everyone in the room understood. The 137th and 139th were and remain a cohesive bunch. Incidentally, the Navy obliged Lazorchak, who later like the rest of the two battalions, was to join up with the First Marine Division for the planned invasion of Japan.
The Last Night
The final night of the reunion wound down with reminiscences of Sampson Naval Training Station, where suddenly they turned in their Navy blues for the green of the new Seabees of the Navy and shipped off to the construction battalion’s East Coast headquarters at Davisville, Rhode Island. Most didn’t even know what a Seabee was, but they soon learned they were landlocked sailors trained to build and to fight.
They shared experiences of packing like sardines in transports … building a theater in a day for the pilots they had just built a runway for … and in a week building a hospital for Okinawa civilians … what the first fresh tomatoes and milk tasted like … how strange traffic sounded once back in the States … the times they got in hot water for not saluting regular Navy officers (generally Seabees ignored tradition) … and the breakfasts after breakfasts of SOS in the chow halls.
SOS refers to creamed chipped beef on toast, also referred to as a “shingle”; you can guess what the first S stands for.
The hair on their heads, what remains of it, is white or gray. Some are stooped, and their faces wrinkled but full of pride: As with Marines, for them, too, it’s Once a Seabee, always a Seabee. It’s no longer Can Do; instead it’s We did it.
No longer are there enough left for another reunion. Some will keep in touch via the Navy Seabee Veterans of America. They will have to the end the satisfaction of being in sufficient numbers when it counted. Today the tradition of the Seabees continues in Iraq, where men and women who can build and fight are much in demand.