Navy sailor band, including Seabee trumpet player Wallace Colcord, performing a Sunday concert while other soldiers look on. Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert Islands, March 1944.
Photo by J.R. Eyerman, from the LIFE Archives.
A T-shirt made by Pike Brothers caught my eye when I saw an image of it posted on Rivet Head’s blog. Printed on the front is a graphic of a helmeted sailor, bayoneted firearm in hand and cigarette in mouth, operating a bulldozer. Above the drawing is the word “Seabees” and below is the word “Tarawa.” The 1940s-esque design intrigued me and reminded me of the graphic style of the pinup girls painted on the side of aircraft in World War II.
I also wanted to know exactly what a “Seabee” was. I correctly assumed that Tarawa was a location in the Pacific theater, where a large battle took place. The Pike Brothers Web site also says the design is an authentic one, original to the 1940s, and that it appeared in many newspapers.
After doing a search on Seabees, Wikipedia told me that the word is an adaptation of the military abbreviation “C.B.,” for “construction battalion.” These construction battalions were formed because it was too dangerous for civilian contractors to operate in these war zones. If they were attacked, civilian workers couldn’t fight back without being deemed guerrilla fighters suitable for execution, so the armed forces needed a militarized construction force that could build the necessary infrastructure for the war fighters, with the ability to fight back when attacked.
The first Seabees were men who were construction workers, welders, machinists, carpenters and other workers in their civilian lives who could quickly adapt their professions to the war effort.
Could this next photo very well be the inspiration for the original graphic on the T-shirt?
**Edit**: The above photo can’t be the inspiration for the T-shirt, because I have found an earlier photo from 1944 of a sailor wearing one of the original T-shirts! I have replaced the first photo in the post with this new find.
A recruitment poster for the Seabees, via Wikipedia.