Forces gather to honor Seabee contributions BY JON RUTTER, Staff Writer
During the Vietnam War, Duayne Keen battled with the U.S. Navy Seabees south of Da Nang.
"I was right on the South Pole," noted the Conestoga man, who fought numbing Antarctic temperatures while working construction. "The coldest I remember was 40 below."
The sun shone 24 hours a day in the summer as Keen's contingent built a weatherproof station to shelter scientists.
And it beamed strongly again Saturday as Keen and other area construction corps veterans from Ephrata-based Island X-5 gathered at Fort Indiantown Gap, Lebanon County, to dedicate a new Seabee monument.
George J. Bips of Manheim Township was the driving force behind the monument.
"I'm 90 years old" and wanted the project to proceed speedily, the World War II veteran said.
Starting last October, Island X-5 raised about $1,500 for a monument.
The stone, engraved with the slogan "We Build We Fight," was transported from Cleveland, Ohio and erected next to a marker memorializing the World War II campaign in China, Burma and India.
Eventually, Bips said, a total of 134 Seabee monuments will be installed in national cemeteries in every state.
"We're the 14th one," he said.
On Saturday, rifles spat out brassy cartridge casings as a color guard shot off three volleys.
The keynote speaker was retired Navy Capt. Joe Leahy, executive director of the Seabee Memorial Scholarship Fund.
Navy officials created the first construction battalions in 1942, Leahy told about 50 people assembled beneath blossoming cherry trees.
Seabee engineering and building forces swelled to about 325,000 during World War II and now number about 15,000.
"We're still over in Afghanistan," Leahy said.
Stateside, meanwhile, vets from Island X-5 and posts nationwide have long plunged in with their tools to help victims of hurricanes Sandy and Katrina and other disasters.
Island X-5 members have fought in conflicts from World War II to Afghanistan, said Bips, who served in the European and Pacific theaters, beginning more than 70 years ago.
Bips' 1006th Construction Battalion Detachment built pontoon paths that delivered Allied invaders to enemy-held shores from Sicily to Okinawa.
During the D-Day landing, he said, "We towed these things into Normandy and we set up a causeway."
The steel pontoon tanks were flooded and sunk to the bottom. Bips said Seabees invented this alternative method because GIs were drowning in the wind-whipped high tides.
"We did that on the spur of the moment," said Bips, who returned to New Jersey and became a sheet metal worker after Japan's surrender.
The weekend ceremony stirred other Seabee memories.
Terre Hill resident David Metzger recalled building cabinets in McCaskey High School shop class before the Seabees exported his talents to Vietnam.
One job was cutting creosoted wooden timbers to rebuild a bombed railroad trestle "like you see in Old West movies."
The temperature was 100 degrees in the shade, Metzger said.
Island X-5 secretary John Habecker, a retired local plumber, worked in Da Nang and Quang Tri, Vietnam, in the late 1960s.
And like Bips and other Seabees, he sometimes toiled in the crosshairs.
"We would get mortar fire" overnight, said Habecker, who explained that the Viet Cong were trying to hit aircraft in the middle of his compound.
"When their rounds fell short, they fell on you."
"I was 19" and building water lines and water treatment plants in the middle of a war. "It was adventuresome," Habecker recalled. Later, "you realize how lucky you were."