Seabees return to Yap

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YAP, Federated States of Micronesia (Feb. 21, 2020) Chief Construction Electrician Kevin Appleby speaks to students at the College of Micronesia, Yap Campus, about the work U.S. Navy Seabees, the U.S. military service, and civil engineering provide. NMCB-5 is deployed across the Indo-Pacific region conducting high-quality construction to support U.S. and partner nations to strengthen partnerships, deter aggression, and enable expeditionary logistics and naval power projection. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Brad Garrigues/Released)

U.S. Navy Seabees with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 5 arrived in Yap, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) on Jan. 6 to re-establish a permanent presence within the community that began over 50 years ago by the “Better than Best” Bees of ‘69.

The new construction detail in Yap will execute engineering civic assistance projects, conduct skills exchanges with the host nation, and perform community service events to enhance shared capabilities and maintain vital relationships in the region. The addition of another construction detail in FSM will also allow Seabees deployed to either Yap or Pohnpei to conduct short term construction projects in Chuuk and Kosrae through “fly-away” teams, which are able to move back and forth between the islands quickly easily when called upon.

“Adding a construction detail in Yap expands the Seabees’ capability and strengthens our ties to the community, enhancing the relationship between the Navy and Micronesia,” said Capt. Steve Stasick, Commodore 30th Naval Construction Regiment.

Yap is one of four states that make up FSM, situated across the Caroline Island chain. From West to East, they are the States of Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae. While Yap encompasses over 200 miles of coral islands, the seat of government is situated in Colonia, on the largest main island.

It is from Colonia that the Spanish (1668-1899), German (1899-1919), and Japanese (1919-1945) ruled, bringing trade, missionaries, and weapons of war. Over the years, the Yapese maintained a cohesive cultural identity, even as one foreign nation after another imparted Yap with new and diverse ways of life. World War II historical markers dot Yap where American Hellcats, B17s, and Japanese Zeros fell over the Japanese held island. Fortuitously bypassed by America in the island-hopping campaign, Yap was finally liberated from Japan in 1945. In 1947, the United Nations turned official control of Yap over to the U.S. as a Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI). This designation allowed the fledgling island nations of Marshall Islands, Palau, and the future FSM access to many governmental functions as they modernized.

In the late 1960s, an agreement between the Department of Interior, Defense, and the Micronesian people allowed for the deployment of Seabee Civic Action Teams (CAT Teams or Seabee Teams) throughout the TTPI on missions of goodwill. The CAT Teams, typically 13 Seabees strong, arrived with the express goals of improving economic, educational, and health care development. They achieved this by providing critical road, utility, and government facility construction. Their secondary goal was to provide locals with technical skills training and develop enduring relationships within the community.

Seabee Team 0315 (NMCB-3, Team 15) touched down in Colonia, Yap on July 29th, 1969 in a torrential downpour. As the story goes, the first bulldozer rolling off the landing ship discovered local roads completely awash. Without hesitation, the equipment operators set to work clearing and opening roads. This left an enduring impression on the Yapese, who were impressed to find the U.S. Navy Seabees improving their island even before completing debarkation. This would have been their fifth tour in Vietnam, but a last-minute order change found these men in a tropical paradise of coconut trees, pristine fishing, and a populace eager to learn from them.

Yap’s main island is a conglomeration of four smaller islands, governed by three Paramount Chiefs. Seabee Team 0315 immediately set to work cutting roads and bridges through thick coconut jungle and mangrove swamps, binding the islands together for the first time. Before these roads, it was virtually impossible to arrange meetings with all of the Paramount Chiefs and many Village Chiefs for the purpose of democratic organization.

In the succeeding years, Seabees built airfields, water catchments, schools, and dispensaries. They led technical skills training in construction, medicine, and heavy machinery. They maintained the roads and repaired water lines, even collecting trash twice a week. In the evenings, Seabees visited villages and showed Hollywood movies via a generator and film projector. This proved an ingenious way to entertain families while ensuring maximum participation of government leaders “town hall” meetings. At the conclusion of the meeting, the movie would begin.

In 1979, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae formed the FSM constitution and were recognized by the United Nations as a new federation. In 1986, FSM and the U.S. signed the mutually beneficial Compact of Free Association (COFA), recognizing FSM’s full self-governance while articulating the unique partnership the two countries would continue to share. COFA ensures continued national defense by the U.S., as well as other key services like Peace Corps, Postal Service, FEMA, National Weather Service, and U.S. military eligibility for FSM citizens.

In recent years, FSM had only seen Seabees for survey visits, fleet exercises (e.g., Pacific Partnership 2018), or two-month deployments by Underwater Construction Teams. These short, intense visits did not provide the close-knit partnering that takes years to build within a community. Yapese used to send their Seabees home in celebratory fashion, with dancing, feasts, and gifting of their extremely precious Stone Money. One such Stone Money gift to Seabee Team 6207 (NMCB-62) can be viewed in the Seabee Museum in Port Hueneme, California.

Today, the legacy of the Seabees in Yap are found at every turn. Along roads first blazed by Alfa Company operators into Gagil and Tomil; in the painted “Fearless 74” beep sticker on Dalipebinaw Elementary; and at Camp Gutaw, turned into the College of FSM – Yap Campus, but still known locally as “Seabee Flat.” Their legacy is found in every Yapese citizen older than 25 who will eagerly share a story of U.S. Seabees handing out popsicles, showing movies, or repairing schools. They are in the stories of the Public Works Director, who as a young boy helped Seabees carry tools to and from the project site near his home.

Their legacy is found in the memories of Yap State Governor Henry Falan, who was deeply moved by the professionalism and hard work of the Vietnam-veteran Ensign officer-in-charge. Falan was a young man when assigned by his Village Chief to assist the Seabees as they built the reinforced concrete bridge connecting his home in Maap to Colonia. In the governor’s first meeting with NMCB-5, he began with, “Welcome to Yap. I urge you, don’t leave!”

Through social media, former Seabee CAT members reach out to share pictures, stories, and words of encouragement. Is the Seabee camp still there? Will the CAT Teams return?

Chief Equipment Operator Rod Yost, retired of Seabee Team 7415 (1989-1990) shared, “A funny time was when we had a 400lb pig take up residence in our camp, he would not leave. We named the pig Porky, turnover mascot.” Senior Chief Construction Mechanic David Tucker, retired of CAT 0425 in 1991 does not remember Porky, but he does recall a delicious pig roast at his turnover party. They all speak proudly of the work they completed and the beautiful people and culture of Yap.

The “Professionals,” of NMCB-5 are re-establishing the detail site, surveying minor projects, receiving tools, and reacquainting themselves with the Yapese. With a spirit of service, Seabees in Yap can be found in schools throughout the island installing mosquito screens, and repairing water and electrical systems.

“It’s an honor to have our Navy Seabees back in Yap-helping improve the infrastructure as well as upholding our deep ties and relationships,” said Cmdr. Ryan Carey, NCMB-5’s commanding officer. “It’s extremely gratifying to reconnect our Seabee heritage with our hosts, the people of Yap, who already have such a rich history. We look forward to implementing and bilaterally supporting community construction projects with our friends in FSM.”

Elsewhere, America’s Bees are carrying the mantel of their CAT Team forefathers in Palau, Timor-Leste, Palawan, Marshall Islands, Tinian, and Pohnpei. NMCB-5 is deployed across the Indo-Pacific region conducting high-quality construction to support U.S. and partner nations to strengthen partnerships, deter aggression, and enable expeditionary logistics and naval power projection.

(By Lt. Brad Garrigues, CEC, USN Det Yap Officer in Charge)